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.”