Freed US Hikers Describe Harrowing Ordeal In Iran

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NEW YORK (AP) — Two American hikers being held in an Iranian prison got a big surprise one day after their exercise routine: Instead of being blindfolded and led back to their cell, they suddenly heard the words, “Let’s go home.”

That’s what a diplomatic envoy from Oman told them before whisking them away to the Tehran airport — and freedom, the two men said Sunday at a Manhattan news conference.

“After 781 days of prison, Shane and I are now free men,” a jubilant Joshua Fattal announced, hours after he and Shane Bauer landed at Kennedy International Airport.

Safe on U.S. soil, the two spoke for the first time in public about their ordeal of more than two years at the hands of Iranians — accused of spying for their country by illegally walking across the Iran-Iraq border.

They say they simply got lost while hiking with another American, Sarah Shourd, who was released last year.

The three paid a brutal price for their adventure, they said.

“Many times, too many times, we heard the screams of other prisoners being beaten and there was nothing we could do to help them,” Fattal said.

Added Bauer: “How can we forgive the Iranian government when it continues to imprison so many other innocent people and prisoners of conscience?”

Bauer was himself beaten and Fattal forced down a flight of stairs, Shourd told reporters.

And though their families wrote them daily letters, they had to go on repeated hunger strikes to receive the letters, the men said.

The two managed to hold on to reality by reading letters sprinkled with news of what was happening in the world, Bauer’s mother, Cindy Hickey, told The Associated Press.

Eventually, they were told — falsely — that their families had abandoned them.

Until their release, the last direct contact family members had with Bauer and Fattal was in May 2010, when their mothers were permitted a short visit in Tehran.

“Solitary confinement was the worst experience of all of our lives,” Fattal said. “We lived in a world of lies and false hope.”

But on Sunday, hope filled a media-packed conference room at Manhattan’s Parker Meridien hotel as the two 29-year-olds walked in, surrounded by relatives. A smiling Bauer put his arm around Shourd — now his fiancee.

He had proposed to her while they were both imprisoned, seeing each other only an hour at a time no more than once a day. He formed an impromptu engagement ring out of the threads from his shirt.

Fattal and Bauer were freed last week under a $1 million bail deal and arrived Wednesday in Oman, greeted by relatives and Shourd.

The men’s families told the AP on Sunday that they don’t know who paid the bail.

But the hikers do know who appeared at Tehran’s Evin prison to take them to freedom. That was the big surprise.

They had just finished their brief daily open-air exercise and expected, as on other days, to be blindfolded and led back to their 8- by-13-foot cell. Instead, the prison guards took them downstairs, fingerprinted them and gave them civilian clothes. They weren’t told where they were going.

The guards then led them to another part of the building, where they met a diplomatic envoy from Oman, who spoke the magic words, “Let’s go home.”

Within hours, the prison gates opened and the Americans were driven to the airport, then flown to Oman, a tiny Persian Gulf nation that had helped negotiate their release and is a U.S. ally.

The following days made for “the most incredible experience of our lives,” Fattal said.

Shourd was with the families to greet the two on the tarmac at a royal airfield in Oman’s capital, Muscat. At about 20 minutes to midnight Wednesday, Fattal and Bauer bounded down the plane steps — very thin and pale, but in good health.

In prison, they had kept in shape physically and mentally by lifting water bottles, discussing books and asking each other questions, family members said. And they ripped slivers of cloth from prison blindfolds to secure their sandals so they could run for exercise.

By Sunday, their returning energy was visible; they were feeling better and better each day, Hickey told the AP.

The first hint of a turnaround in the case came last week when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced the two could be released within days. But wrangling within the country’s leadership delayed efforts. Finally, Iranian defense attorney Masoud Shafiei secured the necessary judicial approval Wednesday for the bail — $500,000 for each man.

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

A beaming Shourd told reporters Sunday: “Shane and Josh and I are beginning our lives again, and there are so many new joys that await us; I’ve never felt as free as I feel today.”

The couple haven’t yet made any wedding plans, she said.

Free and on home soil, Fattal and Bauer sharply rebuked Iran, declaring that they were detained because of their nationality, not because they might have crossed the border from Iraq.

“From the very start, the only reason we have been held hostage is because we are American,” Fattal said. “Iran has always tied our case to its political disputes with the U.S.”

They said they may never know if they actually stepped across a border that is not clearly marked amid wilderness.

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.”

But when they complained about their treatment, they said, the Iranian guards cited how U.S. authorities at the military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, dealt with suspected terrorists there.

The men’s 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.

The two men were convicted last month of espionage and illegally walking into Iran, and were sentenced to eight years in prison. Shourd was charged but freed before any trial.

The three have always maintained their innocence.

During the news conference, the men took turns reading prepared statements. They didn’t take questions from reporters.

Fattal said he wanted to make clear that while he and Bauer “applaud Iranian authorities for finally 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.”

The two countries severed diplomatic ties three decades ago during the hostage crisis, when American diplomats were held for 444 days at the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran after it was stormed in 1979 by militants backing Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Since then, both have tried to limit the other’s influence in the Middle East, and the United States and other Western nations see Iran as the greatest nuclear threat in the region.

Since her release, Shourd has lived in Oakland, Calif. Bauer, a freelance journalist, grew up in Onamia, Minn., and Fattal, an environmental activist, is from Elkins Park, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb.

Bauer and Shourd were living in Damascus, Syria, when Fattal came to visit and the three went hiking.

On Sunday, the men’s families told reporters that they hadn’t made plans for what they would do next — except for carving out some private time together. They would not divulge their destinations in the coming days.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

  • Jay

    Sorry, but hiking near the Iranian border ranks right up there with fishing off the coast of North Korea and sailing off the coast of Somalia. While they did not deserve the treatment they received by the Iranians, there is something to be said for using common sense…

  • Bullwinkle

    Something really fishy about this whole story, but what the heck, I haven’t heard the truth about anything in years

    • something stinks

      I bet it’s gonna be a 3-way fishy story

  • Joe Schmoe

    I don’t buy their dumb story and neither does half this country. The idiots got caught spying for the US government (or some other group) and paid the price.

    Hey friends,
    Let’s go hiking! Where do you want to go? Let’s go to Iran!
    Ok, what a great idea.

    Next time stay in your own country if you want to go hiking.

  • Steve

    Welcome home . . . now go away.

  • Grandma

    Doesn’t the media get it. WE DON’T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT THEIR “ORDEAL”!!!!!!!

  • Who cares about them?

    All three of them are camel dung. We don’t care about them so stop giving them media coverage. Maybe they’ll go adventure seeking in Lybia next and not be so lucky this time around.

    The Iranians were too kind to them.

  • Nancy Aleshire

    Their story about their treatment in Iran sounds believable and similar to those shared by other hostages. I’m glad they are home and reunited with their families. Now it is time for them to get on with their lives and get jobs. Yes, they made a mistake by hiking in a hostile region, but don’t we all regret things we did in our past like partying and bad relationships.

    • send them back and take obama with

      A mistake? They fuged up, if you look up the word stupid it show a photo of them

  • Paul

    Nothing like getting bailed out by the US for their extremely foolish decisions then blaming the US for Iran being hostile towards us. So sad that these morons are going to probably get a movie/book deals and will be praised as heros.

  • red

    Glad for them that they are home but now I have heard enough. Time to go away- Thank you!

  • baby servings

    They setting the table for the book and movie to come….and America today has enough idiots who buy into bs to make it mighty lucrative.
    The smirks and giggles make me want to puke …. how do we send them back???? lol

  • Jeff

    The CIA paid their bail. Who else?

    • markH

      The CIA does not manufacture a product for sale, nor do they collect fees for their services. I think you need to get off the computer and take a course of two in American politics and basic civics. Peace.

  • Muslim extremists speak out here

    It was not a good place to hike. But that is no excuse for their treatment. I suspect the negative comments here come from Iranian sympathizers and islamic extremists. The comment “camel dung” is a real give away, as is the assertion that the CIA paid their bail.

  • Where idid it come from?

    Who paid the Million Dollars for these two? The Taxpayer? None of them looked like they had half millioin to pay off the ransom.

    • Eagan

      Sultan of Oman paid the $1 Million bail. Contrary to what some believe, it is not legal for the US govt. (taxpayers) to pay out bail in these situations.

      • kit

        But it probably is legal for the US to give the Sultan of Oman $1million for one reason or other + a tip I am sure…

  • Thanx

    Thank you CBS-MN for re-freshing the page while im trying to read the story. Fix the problem webmaster.

  • Kalana

    So they were hiking in a country we are at war with, hmmm, join the military they hike every day

  • Deep Thinker

    When reached for comment both hikers said their next adventure would take them hiking along the North Korea border.

    • Guy

      Nah – boat trip off the sunny coast of Somalia is next – THEN the hike to NK.

  • Rubin

    Wake up hikers and smell the coffee!!!! Why do morons get so much media coverage?

  • Ready to puke

    These are three of the most disgusting people I have read in the news about. They should be forced sterilized or sent back to Iran. We don’t need anymore of that stupid here

  • Enough is Enough

    The ordeal is over. Time for the news media to get these California Liberals off the world stage, That or send them to Mexico.

  • Numb-Nuts galore

    Great – now we have all three numb-nuts back in the Country – great.

  • kit

    Correction: Freed US Spies…

    • markH

      Ah, the voice of paranoid credulity. Have you one fact to support your absurd claim or are you just parroting what you hear other ignoramuses say?

  • kit

    Also, is bail defined differently in Iran than it is here? In the US you are freed on bail until you are sentenced. These people were sentenced to prison. Wouldn’t this be more like parole? How do you get out on bail when you are already sentenced?

  • Ben Dover

    Who gives a rats ass

  • really

    If oman paid the bail, what did the US give Oman?? must of been something don’t you think?

  • Jake

    Soooo tired of hearing that these payments were ‘bail’ money. Rubbish. Look it up in the dictionary. These payments were RANSOM payments. Can’t even count on the drive-by media to call a spade a spade anymore…..

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