Jailed Hikers: the Untold Story

The three Americans Iran has charged with espionage are not who you think they are.

Kari Lydersen

On May 20, detained U.S. hikers Shane Bauer (L), Sarah Shourd (C) and Josh Fattal (R) sit with their mothers in Tehran during their first meeting since their arrest on July, 31, 2009.

In July of last year, Shon Meck­fes­sel was debat­ing whether or not to join his three friends on a hike in the moun­tains of Kur­dis­tan in north­ern Iraq. In the hopes of fight­ing off a cold, Meck­fes­sel ulti­mate­ly decid­ed to stay in a hotel, with plans to join them the next day.

That seem­ing­ly incon­se­quen­tial deci­sion saved Meck­fes­sel from end­ing up in an Iran­ian prison, where his friends have spent the last year.

Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Josh Fat­tal have become known as the hik­ers” since their arrest on July 31, 2009, by Iran­ian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards, who claimed the three ille­gal­ly crossed the Iraq-Iran border.

And Bauer, Fat­tal and Shourd were indeed hik­ers at the moment of their arrest, tak­ing a break from jour­nal­is­tic, aca­d­e­m­ic and sol­i­dar­i­ty work they were doing in the Mid­dle East. The four, who met while study­ing in the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area, con­sid­ered them­selves on a mis­sion to – in Shourd’s words – build a bridge between East and West.”

Meck­fes­sel, 37 and author of a 2009 book on post-con­flict life in the Balka­ns, is cur­rent­ly on a 30-city, no-frills Euro­pean tour spread­ing the word about the plight of his friends. He also recent­ly launched a web­site, www​.freeourfriends​.eu, that high­lights the work of his three impris­oned col­leau­gues and pro­vides tes­ti­mo­ni­als from sup­port­ers includ­ing Noam Chom­sky, Desmond Tutu and the par­ents of slain activist Rachel Corrie.

Only 28 years old, Bauer already has an impres­sive rep­u­ta­tion for inves­tiga­tive report­ing, and has pub­lished sto­ries on the Mid­dle East for The Nation, Moth­er Jones, Al Jazeera​.net and New Amer­i­ca Media. Among oth­er things, he exposed the exis­tence of spe­cial oper­a­tions forces in Iraq who are account­able to no one but the prime minister.

Shourd, 31 and a pro­lif­ic inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist, has brought a per­son­al voice to obser­va­tions of dai­ly life in Latin Amer­i­ca, the Mid­dle East and Africa. She also taught Eng­lish in Dam­as­cus where she and Bauer, now her fiancé, lived for 10 months before their detention. 

Fat­tal, 27, had just arrived in the Mid­dle East as a teach­ing fel­low in the Boston-based Inter­na­tion­al Hon­ors Pro­gram that had already led him to India, Chi­na and South Africa.

Meck­fes­sel was work­ing on a dis­ser­ta­tion for the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton on the Arab-Israeli con­flict at the time of the ill-fat­ed hike. He is dis­turbed that many peo­ple in the Unit­ed States and around the world seem to view his friends as naïve out­doors­men, clue­less about the pol­i­tics sur­round­ing them.

The cov­er­age has been very wide, but very thin,” says Meck­fes­sel, who grew up in Sacra­men­to. Near­ly every­one I speak to inside the U.S. has heard of the case, but knows less than noth­ing about who they are, or why we were in the Mid­dle East in the first place. Worse yet, peo­ple have heard the same thin sto­ry so many times that they think they’re experts on it. I end up get­ting lec­tured by total strangers about the char­ac­ter of some of my clos­est friends.”

The Iran­ian gov­ern­ment has charged them with espi­onage, an alle­ga­tion that friends and col­leagues find ludi­crous and iron­ic, con­sid­er­ing the three are vocal crit­ics of U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy and inter­ven­tion in the Mid­dle East.

In ear­ly inter­views, his friends’ moth­ers talked about their children’s jour­nal­ism and sol­i­dar­i­ty work in the Mid­dle East and their desire to increase under­stand­ing of the region. But that’s not what stuck” in main­stream media cov­er­age, Meck­fes­sel says. It’s a long sto­ry that has a lot to do with how media works, with sen­sa­tion­al­ism and sim­pli­fy­ing things for a quick, uncom­pli­cat­ed pitch.”

The Nation Institute’s Inves­tiga­tive Fund, for which Bauer worked, com­mis­sioned two reporters to inves­ti­gate the cir­cum­stances of the arrest. Those reporters tracked down local eye­wit­ness­es who con­firmed the three were actu­al­ly in Iraq, not Iran, when they were detained.

It seems pret­ty appar­ent to us they did not cross the bor­der at all,” says Esther Kaplan of The Inves­tiga­tive Fund, which fund­ed Bauer for a project in Pales­tine before his arrest. The Fund’s reporters also dis­cov­ered that the hik­ers’ deten­tion and trans­port to Tehran was like­ly ordered by a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards’ region­al intel­li­gence com­man­der who is now fac­ing exe­cu­tion after being impli­cat­ed in a vast crim­i­nal enter­prise encom­pass­ing a prof­itable smug­gling oper­a­tion and dozens of mur­ders, rapes and kidnappings.” 

Since state-lev­el nego­ti­a­tions have not yield­ed his friends’ release, Meck­fes­sel is count­ing on inter­na­tion­al social pres­sure” built through the web­site, his tour, social net­work­ing and word of mouth to both help secure their free­dom and pro­mote the work and val­ues they have long stood for.

We’re all high­ly crit­i­cal of U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy,” says Meck­fes­sel. We’ve spent our whole adult lives fight­ing to change it. So there’s been a fear of stir­ring up con­tro­ver­sy with­in the U.S. pub­lic by focus­ing on who we actu­al­ly are.”

But with his Euro­pean tour and media cam­paign, Meck­fes­sel is hop­ing to stoke a groundswell of aware­ness. Meck­fes­sel says that the grass­roots activism scene in many Euro­pean cities nur­tures a feel­ing of empow­er­ment and imme­di­a­cy often miss­ing in the Unit­ed States. He feels Euro­peans are more like­ly to act on the infor­ma­tion they receive and incor­po­rate it into broad­er social movements.

I hope that draw­ing atten­tion to their pub­lic record of incred­i­ble human­i­tar­i­an, jour­nal­is­tic, [and] polit­i­cal work– for Pales­tini­ans, for Iraqis, against U.S. impe­ri­al­ism – will put enough glob­al pres­sure on Iran that it’s just not worth hold­ing on to them anymore.”

Kari Lyder­sen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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