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Mothers' appeal for hikers held in Iran

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 22 July 2010

The mothers of three US hikers arrested for 'spying' after allegedly straying into Iranian territory almost a year ago tell Channel 4 News they will not give up until their children are home.

Prisoners hug their mothers during a visit in Tehran May 2010 (credit: Reuters)

Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal were captured on 31 July 2009 after apparently straying across an unmarked boarder into Iran, while hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Shane and Sarah were living together in Damascus, Syria and decided to take the trip when visited by their friend Josh, a fellow graduate from the University of California.

Iranian authorities accused the trio of spying for the United States, a charge both the hikers and State Department deny.

The US newspaper The Nation claims to have found Kurdish witnesses who say the walkers were arrested on Iraqi soil, but the publication says they are afraid to identify themselves, fearing retribution.

An Iraqi border guard Brig. Gen Ahmed Gharib has been quoted saying the three were arrested at the summit of a mountain inside Iranian territory.

The prisoners' families have been campaigning to highlight their case and appeal for their release.

Last week they wrote to the Iranian Mission in New York asking for their release from "unjust and arbitrary detention". So far there has been no response.

Today their mothers were in London to raise awareness of their appeal for the release of the three hikers.

Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal

Fractured relations
The case of Bauer, Shourd and Fattal is made all the more complicated by the difficult relationship between the US and Iran.

Washington and Tehran are at loggerheads over Iran's nuclear programme, over which the UN Security Council launched a fourth round of sanctions just last month.

The two nations have no official diplomatic relations, so all communications are conducted through the Swiss. So far no charges have been brought against the three, but Iran says the arrests were lawful, and the judicial system is treating the case in the 'normal fashion.'

In May this years the prisoners' mothers were allowed to visit their children in Tehran, which they described as an emotional trip during which they were closely monitored.

Sarah Shroud's mother Nora told Channel 4 News: "For me they were the two most emotional days of my life without doubt. Our kids didn’t know we were coming, when they walked in the room the expression on their faces were unbelievable. They told us later that they thought they were going to trial.

"These kids have been kept in the dark for a year, as have we, about any details of their case or how they're being treated. When they walked in we started to hug them and hold them and touch them and we didn’t want to let go. It was just overwhelming to see them."

Evin Prison
The three are being held the notorious Evin Prison in central Tehran. While they are said to be in good physical condition their mothers say they noticed deterioration.

Sarah Shourd is said to be faring the worst. While the two men are sharing a room, Sarah is being held on her own for 23 hours a day with just two half an hour visits to her friends each day.

The 31-year-old told a news conference during the visit in May: "We don't understand why we've been kept here. In my wildest dreams I never thought I would still be in prison."  

"The hour a day I have with Shane and Josh I try and make the most of it. We just try to give each other love and support in the little time we have together. We exercise, I am learning Arabic. I live in Syria - I wanted to be a bridge between east and west."

Speaking to Channel 4 News from outside the Iranian embassy in London Nora Shroud said: "We have physical evidence now of the fact that our children are not the same, it was obvious when we saw them, they're thinner, they look very pale, they have dark circles under their eyes; they're highly anxious, I would go so far as to say afraid."

An unusual proposal
There is some good news in this story. During their incarceration inmates Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd have become engaged.

Bauer is said to have asked friend Josh Fattal to stay back during their shared time one day so he could pop the question.

The couple are now wearing rings made of threads from Bauer's shirt and have asked Fattal to be best man.

The case
The families say the believe their children are being used as pawns in a political standoff and are appealing for either a trial or release on humanistarian grounds.

A former inmate at Evin, filmaker Maziar Bahari, a frequent contributor to Channel 4 News spent 120 days inside Evin prison last year. He remembers hearing the three Americans when he was in prison, and he too believes the Iranians will try to use them as a political pawn.

"The Iranian government has a very bizarre mentality; it treats everything and every person as a commodity. These three American hostages are being kept in good physical condition, because they are commodities.

"They are not going to harm them, or physically abuse them; they are keeping them in tact in order to be able to exchange them for something. I'm not sure what, but I'm sure they will keep them in a good physical condition."

Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been among those to support the campaign.

In February, President Ahmadinejad said Iran might be willing to negotiate a prisoner exchange, but the suggestion was quickly rejected by the Obama administration.

"Ctying about this outrage"
Since the May visit there has been no contact with the prisoners, but the mothers have vowed to continue their fight, Shane Bauer’s mother Cindy Hickey pledged: "We want to raise our voices we want people to hear all over the world and we want people to join us in crying about this outrage.

"This is outrageous, they haven't been charged, they've been in there for almost a year, they have no access to their lawyer who we hired in December, they have no access to the Swiss.

"The Iranian authorities are repeatedly asked for access by the lawyer and by the Swiss and they keep denying us. This will not end until our children are home."

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