Freed U.S. Hikers Speak Out: Iranian Guards Cited Guantánamo, CIA Prisons to Justify Mistreatment
AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. hikers Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer arrived in New York this weekend after being held for more than two years in an Iranian prison. The hikers were released last week, then taken to Oman, where they were joyfully reunited with their families. Last night was their first night to sleep in the United States.
In July of 2009, Bauer and Fattal were arrested, along with Sarah Shourd, while hiking near the Iran-Iraq border. Bauer is a freelance journalist who has contributed to Democracy Now! and other media outlets. Fattal is an environmental activist. Sarah Shourd was released last year.
Upon arriving in New York, Josh and Shane addressed reporters at a news conference at a Midtown hotel. These are their first extended comments since being released.
JOSH FATTAL: Good afternoon and thank you for coming here today. My name is Josh Fattal.
After 781 days in prison, Shane and I are now free men.
Last Wednesday, we had just finished our brief daily exercise in the open-air room at Evin Prison, where something totally unexpected happened. On any other day, we would have been blindfolded and led down the hallway back to our eight-foot-by-13-foot cell. But on that day, the guards took us downstairs, they fingerprinted us, and they gave us street clothes. They didn’t tell us where we were going. Instead, they took us to another part of the prison, where we saw Dr. Salem Al Ismaily, the envoy of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos of Oman. And the first thing Salem said when we got to him is he looked at us and he said, "Let’s go home."
What followed was the most incredible experience of our lives. We were held in captivity in almost complete isolation for more than two years. But for the past few precious days, we’ve been experiencing free life anew with our families in Muscat.
In all the time we spent in detention, we had a total of 15 minutes of telephone calls with our families and one short visit from our mothers. We had to go on hunger strike repeatedly just to receive letters from our loved ones. Many times, too many times, we heard the screams of other prisoners being beaten, and there was nothing we could do to help them. Solitary confinement was the worst experience of all of our lives. It was a nightmare that Sarah had to endure for 14 months. Sarah’s strength during the one-hour meetings that we were allowed with her lifted our spirits daily. One year ago, when Sarah was released, our world shrank.
In prison, we lived in a world of lies and false hope. The investigators lied that Ambassador Leu from the Swiss embassy in Tehran did not want to see us. They told us, again falsely, that we would be given due process and access to our lawyer, the courageous and persistent Mr. Masoud Shafii. But most infuriating—most infuriatingly, they even told us that our families stopped writing us letters.
Releasing us is a good gesture, and no positive step should go unnoticed. We applaud the Iranian authorities for finally making the right decision regarding our case. But we want to be clear: they do not deserve undue credit for ending what they had no right and no justification to start in the first place. From the very start, the only reason we have been—from the very start, the only reason we have been held hostage is because we are American. Sarah was held for 410 days. The two of us were held for 781 days. That’s far too long, and it’s far longer than the American hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. It was clear to us from the very beginning that we were hostages. "Hostage" is the most accurate term, because, despite certain knowledge of our innocence, the Iranian government has tied our case to its political disputes with the U.S. Thank you.
I would like to hand now over to Shane. He helped me through the worst days of my life, and I cannot imagine how I would have made it through these two years without him.
SHANE BAUER: Thank you, Josh, and thank you, everyone, for being here.
We will always regret the grief and anxiety that our fateful hiking trip led to, above all for our families. But we would like to be very clear: this was never about crossing the unmarked border between Iran and Iraq. We were held because of our nationality. Indeed, there are many other cases of unauthorized entry to Iran in which people were simply fined or deported after a short time. We do not know if we crossed the border. We will probably never know. But even if we did enter Iran, that has never been the reason why the Iranian authorities kept us in prison for so long.
The only explanation for our prolonged detention is the 32 years of mutual hostility between America and Iran. The irony is that Sarah, Josh and I oppose U.S. policies towards Iran which perpetuate this hostility. We were convicted of espionage because we are American. It’s that simple. No evidence was ever presented against us. That is because there is no evidence and because we are completely innocent. The two court sessions we attended were a total sham. They were made up of ridiculous lies that depicted us as being involved in an elaborate American-Israeli conspiracy to undermine Iran.
Sarah, Josh and I have experienced a taste of the Iranian regime’s brutality. We have been held in almost total isolation from the world and everything we love, stripped of our rights and freedom. You may ask us, "Now that you are free, can you forgive the Iranian government for what it has done to you?"
Our answer is this. How can we forgive the Iranian government when it continues to imprison so many other innocent people and prisoners of conscience? It is the Iranian people who bear the brunt of this government’s cruelty and disregard for human rights. There are people in Iran who are imprisoned for years simply for attending a protest, for writing a pro-democracy blog or for worshiping an unpopular faith. Journalists remain behind bars, and innocent people have been executed. If the Iranian government wants to change its image in the world and ease international pressure, it should release all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience immediately. They deserve their freedom just as much as we do.
In prison, every time we complained about our conditions, the guards would immediately remind us of comparable conditions at Guantánamo Bay. They would remind of us of CIA prisons in other parts of the world and the conditions that Iranians and others experience in prisons in the U.S. We do not believe that such human rights violations on the part of our government justify what has been done to us. Not for a moment. However, we do believe that these actions on the part of the U.S.—however, we do believe that these actions on the part of the U.S. provide an excuse for other governments, including the government of Iran, to act in kind. Thank you.
Josh and I now want to express our thanks to everyone who helped make today happen.
JOSH FATTAL: When our mothers were allowed to visit us in May of 2010, they told us about the campaign, the campaign to win our freedom. We owe a lifelong debt of gratitude to so many people. Their efforts mean we are free, and we will never be able to thank them enough.
Our thanks go, first and foremost, to our wonderful families, who have done more for us than we can ever repay. This has been their ordeal as much as it has been our ordeal, and they have sacrificed so much for us to be here today. That includes Sarah, who had joined them as soon as she was free in their tireless work to achieve our freedom. We owe all of them a great debt, and our love for you is unqualified and eternal.
They include all our friends, here at home and overseas. Like our families, many of our friends put their own lives on hold to fight for our freedom. Like our families, they did so while coping with their own pain about our detention. You are our true friends, and you always will be.
And they include tens of thousands of people in America and all over the world, including Iran. They have expressed their support for us, donated to Free the Hikers campaign. They’ve prayed for us, each in his and in her own way. We will never know most of these people, but we want them to know that we love them, and we always will. We thank you for all the energy—we thank you for all the energy and comfort you sent to us while we were dealing with our darkest hours.
Our lawyer, Mr. Masoud Shafii, took on our case at the end of 2009, and he has been a determined and brave advocate ever since. He was never allowed to represent us properly, but he never gave up. We will always stand by him, as he stood by us for so long.
His Majesty Sultan Qaboos of Oman and his envoy, Dr. Salem Al Ismaily, worked ceaselessly to bring us home. We are humbled by their humanity and their unswerving commitment to justice. We are eternally grateful for their kindness and hospitality that they and the people of Oman showed us—showed to us and to our families.
The Swiss ambassador to Iran, Livia Leu Agosti, and her colleagues never stopped trying to get consular access and also to try to resolve our case. We were denied—we were denied our rights to visit—to their visit, but we know that Livia and her colleagues would show up time and again, time and again, at Evin Prison to try to see us. Thank you for your unstinting dedication.
SHANE BAUER: We also want to express our great thanks to the many world leaders and individuals who championed our cause. They include the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, President Jalal Talabani of Iraq and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and the governments of Turkey and Brazil. They were certain of our innocence, and their certainty made a difference. They include the actor Sean Penn, the great Muhammad Ali, Noam Chomsky, the singer Yusuf Islam, Cindy Sheehan, and Nobel Laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mairead Maguire. We will always remember that you stood by us.
There were also U.S. government officials who worked for our release, and some of them found creative ways to try and lessen the tension between the U.S. and Iran. Consular officials at the State Department supported our families throughout. Our members of Congress spoke up for us, publicly and privately. Ambassador Richard Schmierer, his wife Sandy and the staff of the U.S. embassy in Oman were most gracious with their time and hospitality, twice now. They have our gratitude for their support and kindness.
The sympathy and support of many Muslim and other religious leaders in America, the Iranian people and elements within the Iranian government that worked for our freedom were also all invaluable. Thank you.
Finally, we want to thank the media, in the United States and around the world, for keeping our case in the public eye. It means a lot to us. And now that we are home, we know you will give us the time we need to reconnect with our families and rebuild our lives.
When Sarah was about to walk out of Evin Prison last year, we vowed to each other that none of us would be free entirely until all of us were free. That moment has now thankfully come. Sarah, Josh and I can now finally leave prison behind us. We want more than anything to begin our lives anew and with a new appreciation for the sweet taste of freedom.
Thank you, everyone.
AMY GOODMAN: Freed American hikers, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, addressing a news conference in New York hours after they arrived in the United States. They had been imprisoned by the Iranian government for more than two years. When we come back, an excerpt of the news conference with some of their family members and the third American hiker, Sarah Shourd. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to this momentous news conference on Sunday held by the American hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal hours after they arrived in the United States at a Midtown New York hotel. They were flanked by their families. They had just been released from an Iranian prison after two years. Shane and Josh did not take questions after their extended comments, but some of their family members did. During the news conference, I had a chance to question Shane Bauer’s mother, Cindy Hickey, and Josh Fattal’s mother, Laura, along with Sarah Shourd, the third American hiker who was in prison for more than a year and released last year.
AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to hear from Laura and Cindy about the release of their sons, but first, Sarah, if you could just comment on one statement, since you said these statements are all three of yours, talking about Guantánamo and C.I.A. prisons being used to justify how you were treated, but that you felt—you were critical of these, as well.
SARAH SHOURD: Yes. Shane and Josh and I have a long record of opposing policies of the U.S. government that are—that we don’t believe are right or just. And it was very ironic, then, when I was in Evin Prison, every time I would complain about being alone, every time I would lose—completely almost lose my ability to go on from the solitude and the fear and the intimidation and the complete uncertainty about our futures, the guards would bring up what—Guantánamo, what prisoners were experiencing there. And we would say, "We know. We understand. But two wrongs don’t make a right." That said, we oppose vehemently that prisoners around the world are experiencing abuse similar to ours and worse.
LAURA FATTAL: Hi, Amy. Thank you for the question. Well, needless to say, it was a very, very exciting moment watching the boys come down the stairs. You know, they only knew, as Josh described, minutes before they were going to be released, and we only got that phone call on Wednesday and then went to the airport in Muscat later that night. So it was a very quick—from the time they found out they were going to be released to coming home. So, yes, yes, we were enormously elated to see them.
I must say, Cindy and I both agree, they’re a little thinner than we left them. OK. Their hair is nicely cut. They had slight gray under their eyes, because they haven’t had much sunshine at all, quite—nothing on vitamin D. But I just want to say, they had organized their day in such a way that—I’ll just, if everyone will bear with me—they were very, very organized. They had a reading hour. They had—they tested each other on SAT and—not SAT, GRE questions. They read books and had questions for each other in jail about different readings they had. Hannah Arendt was one of their favorite writers.
But one of the things that Josh has told me was that he had—they were very serious about their exercise, and they used water bottles as weights in their cell to build muscles. And you see they’re both very fit now. But also, the guards gave blindfolds. When the boys had to walk in the halls, they had blindfolds, so they couldn’t communicate with any other prisoners. And so, Josh and Shane cut one of the blindfolds so they could make laces for their sneakers, because when they used to have to go in the outside area to exercise, they had like equal to kind of sandals, so they wanted to be able to run a lot and to exercise a lot, so they could make—so they made laces from that strips of blindfold so they could have laces on their sneakers, just showing ingenuity. But I’m sure Cindy has more to say, as well.
CINDY HICKEY: The question of how it felt to see Shane come down the runway, it was an unbelievable time for me. We have worked very hard, and I want to—I want to applaud everyone in our families for the work that we’ve done together and the fact that we’re still together and we’re a strong force. The moment that I saw Shane come down the runway was waited for for a long time. The joy for me was to see him put his arms around his two sisters, who have been waiting and waiting for their brother, who they’re very close to, to come home, and their father. And of course I couldn’t wait to get my arms around him myself. I want to be a support to Shane. I want to be there for him. And I can’t wait to see Shane move forward in his work. I’m very proud of my son and his work, and I always have been, and I know his work will even be stronger. And I know the work in the world that he’s done in the past, he’ll continue to do with greater force. Our lives are starting. We’re all free—not only Shane, Sarah and Josh, but their families. And I look forward to the doors that are open, and I plan on moving forward after a break, after a little bit of rest, back into this world also with strong force.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Shane Bauer’s mother, Cindy Hickey, and Laura Fattal, mother of Josh Fattal, the two U.S. hikers released on Wednesday after 781 days in a 104-square-foot Iranian prison cell. Upon landing in Oman after their release last Wednesday, and before coming to New York, the hikers briefly addressed reporters at the Oman airport. This is an excerpt of what Shane Bauer said.
SHANE BAUER: Two years in prison is too long, and we sincerely hope for the freedom of other political prisoners and other unjustly imprisoned people in America and Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: After the news conference on Sunday here in New York, I read that former Reagan-Bush adviser Elliot Abrams had criticized Shane Bauer for his comments in Oman. Abrams pled guilty to withholding information from Congress in the Iran-Contra affair, by the way. But I asked Shane Bauer’s fiancée, Sarah Shourd, after the news conference to respond to Elliot Abrams, but first I asked her about those first moments of freedom in Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: What were your first words when they came to you in Oman?
SARAH SHOURD: Well, I was speechless for a very long time. I just—I said to them, "It’s real. You’re never going to have to go back there." And we—you know, the rest was really just tears and smiles and—
AMY GOODMAN: I don’t know if you’ve heard what Elliot Abrams, the Reagan-Bush administration official, has just written for CNN in a piece called "Shane Bauer’s Ingratitude," in which he criticizes Shane for calling on the U.S., not just Iran, to release political prisoners and those who are unjustly detained. Your response, since you’re saying that Shane and Josh were speaking for all three of you?
SARAH SHOURD: Well, no one can spend over a year, let alone over two years, of their lives unjustly detained, imprisoned and cut off from the world, without feeling connected to other prisoners around the world. Shane and Josh and I were hostages. We were held for political reasons. We are completely innocent. And, of course, we will never, ever be able to forget that other people are still sitting in the position that we were in. Shane and Josh, just a few days ago, and even though for me it was a year ago, it’s just as real to me as it was the minute that I stepped off that plane.
AMY GOODMAN: You have said that you heard—you have said that you heard people screaming in the Iranian prison?
SARAH SHOURD: Yes, that’s correct. It didn’t happen very often, but it didn’t have to happen often to leave really an indelible mark on me and on Shane and Josh and I. It will inform the work that we do for a more just world in the future.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Shourd, one of the three American hikers detained by the Iranian government. Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were detained for more than two years, Sarah Shourd for more than one year. She is engaged to Shane Bauer.