Freed hikers: Iran’s actions all political

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photoJosh Fattal
photoShane Bauer

NEW YORK — Declaring that they were detained because of their nationality, two American hikers held for more than two years in an Iranian prison came home Sunday, ending a diplomatic and personal ordeal with a sharp rebuke of the country that accused them of crossing the border from Iraq.

Joshua Fattal and Shane Bauer, both 29, were freed last week under a $1 million bail deal and arrived Wednesday in Oman, greeted by relatives and fellow hiker Sarah Shourd, who was released last year.

Their saga began in July 2009 with what they called a wrong turn into the wrong country. The three say they were hiking together in Iraq’s relatively peaceful Kurdish region along the Iran-Iraq border when Iranian guards detained them. They always maintained their innocence, saying they might have accidentally wandered into Iran.

The two men were convicted of spying last month. Shourd, whom Bauer proposed marriage to while they were imprisoned, was charged but freed before any trial. The men took turns reading statements at a news conference Sunday in New York. They didn’t take questions from reporters.

Fattal said he wanted to make clear that while he and Bauer applaud Iranian authorities for making the right decision, 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 held hostage is because we are American,” he said, adding “Iran has always tied our case to its political disputes with the U.S.”

The two countries severed diplomatic ties three decades ago during the hostage crisis. Since then, both have tried to limit the other’s influence in the Middle East. The United States and other Western nations see Iran as the greatest nuclear threat in the region.

The hikers’ detention, Bauer said, was “never about crossing the unmarked border between Iran and Iraq. We were held because of our nationality.”

The irony of it all, he said, “is that Sarah, Josh and I oppose U.S. policies towards Iran which perpetuate this hostility.”

The two told of difficult prison conditions, where they were held in near isolation.

“Many times, too many times, we heard the screams of other prisoners being beaten and there was nothing we could do to help them,” said Fattal. “How can we forgive the Iranian government when it continues to imprison so many other innocent people and prisoners of conscience?”

They said their phone calls with family members amounted to a total of 15 minutes in two years, and they had to go on repeated hunger strikes to receive letters. Eventually, they were told — falsely — that their families had stopped writing them letters.

Fattal called their release a total surprise. On Wednesday, he said, they had just finished their brief daily open-air exercise and expected to be blindfolded and led back to their 8- by 13-foot cell.

Instead, prison guards took them downstairs, fingerprinted them and gave them civilian clothes. They weren’t told where they were going. The guards led them to another part of the prison, where they met a diplomatic envoy from Oman.

His first words to them? “Let’s go home.”

Hours later, the gates of Tehran’s Evin prison opened and the Americans were driven to the airport, then flown to Oman. The days following their sudden release, Fattal said, made for “the most incredible experience of our lives.”

Shourd was with the families to greet the two on the tarmac at a royal airfield near the airport in Oman’s capital, Muscat. At about 20 minutes before midnight Wednesday, Fattal and Bauer, wearing jeans and casual shirts, bounded down the steps from the blue-and-white plane. The men appeared very thin and pale, but in good health.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry called their release a gesture of Islamic mercy.