We speak to the mothers of Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd, two of the three Americans detained after mistakenly hiking into Iran last July. This week brought a glimmer of hope when Iran’s top human rights official said he was considering a request by the families to visit them in prison. But with no word from their children for over 200 days and ongoing tensions between the US and Iranian government, the prospects for their release are as uncertain as ever. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today with an update on the three Americans who have been held in Iran for over six months. Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal were detained on July 31st after accidentally crossing into Iran while hiking in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. The three are in Iran’s notorious Evin prison.
It’s been more than 200 days since the families of the detained Americans have had any contact with them. Their last consular visit from Swiss diplomats who represent American interests in Iran was in late October, and the Iranian lawyer their families asked to represent them has also been refused access. In November, Iran’s judiciary announced espionage charges against the three.
But this Tuesday brought a glimmer of hope when Iran’s top human rights official told journalists in Geneva he’s considering a request by the families of the three hikers to visit them in prison. Mohammad Javad Larijani said the Iranian Council for Human Rights had recommended the detained Americans be allowed family visits.
The mothers of the hikers have sent a letter to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Monday urging him to allow them to visit their children in prison and help secure their release. They quoted the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who issued an appeal on their behalf last month. He wrote, "It is difficult to escape the conclusion that [Shane, Sarah and Josh] continue to be held because they are Americans and not for any legal reason. I urge the Iranian authorities not to deny them their freedom in order to express their discontent with the United States. Nations have a right to disagree but their citizens should not be made to pay the price of their differences," he wrote.
Well, now I’m joined by two of the moms, the mothers of Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd, two of the three Americans detained in Iran. Shane Bauer is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Nation, Pacific News Service, and we played a report of his on Democracy Now! Sarah Shourd is a teacher and writer. She was living in Damascus, Syria with Shane last summer. Cindy Hickey and Nora Shourd are our guests today.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
CINDY HICKEY: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what is the latest, Cindy? Tell us what you have heard. The latest news we’ve gotten, that they’re saying possibly you could meet with your sons and daughter.
CINDY HICKEY: Yes, we heard the same news through media that everyone else has, that possibly they’re going to look at our visas with a good light. And we’re just waiting that moment that we get official word that we can begin our travels to see our children. We haven’t seen them for 200 days. We haven’t heard from them. We haven’t gotten one phone call. So we’re anxious to see them.
AMY GOODMAN: Nora, never since they were captured, on July 31st, have you heard from Sarah or the others?
NORA SHOURD: We’ve had no contact at all with the three. We haven’t even had a phone call, which is really, really difficult for us, not to hear our kids’ voices for this long. The Swiss have been in twice. The last time the Swiss were in was October 29th, very short visit. Apparently, they appeared well, seemed healthy. But at this point, we’re worried. Six months in prison has got to have a really bad effect on them. We’re very worried about them.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell me about your children. Tell me about Shane. Shane, we did — when he was out, when he was a freelance journalist, we played a piece of his. But tell us who Shane is. Cindy.
CINDY HICKEY: Shane is very compassionate. He’s very caring of the world. He’s very open to all cultures and religions. And in his work, he likes to express, you know, the word of the people. He likes to bring that to light. He’s —-
AMY GOODMAN: You’re from Minnesota?
CINDY HICKEY: Yes, I’m from Minnesota.
AMY GOODMAN: He was raised there?
CINDY HICKEY: He was raised in Minnesota and finished high school in California, where his father lived, and then soon began his travels and has spent a lot of time in the Middle East, graduated from UC Berkeley with a peace and conflict major, an Arabic and a photojournalist minor.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about Sarah, Nora?
NORA SHOURD: Well, you know, Sarah was over there looking for a way to kind of give back. Part of, you know, what they talked about when they went to the Middle East was, you know, what can we do for this part of the world? She taught English there. She taught English back here. She also volunteered in a program for the Iraqi student refugees there in Syria. She’s all about, like, giving back to the world. You know, very tolerant, patient, compassionate, open young woman.
AMY GOODMAN: And Sarah and Shane are a couple?
CINDY HICKEY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And they have been for a while?
CINDY HICKEY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what were they doing in Iraq, in Iraqi Kurdistan?
CINDY HICKEY: Well, Shane and Sarah live in Damascus. They’re avid outdoors hikers. And they were on vacation. Josh came to visit, and they had been told that this was a beautiful area. Shane actually talks to me on a regular basis and shared with me, a month before, the plans for their trip -— a week before I talked to him, and he said, “It’s a great place. It’s beautiful. It’s safe.”
AMY GOODMAN: And how did you hear, Nora, that your kids had been captured?
NORA SHOURD: Well, I actually heard from Cindy. She got —-
AMY GOODMAN: And you knew each other before?
CINDY HICKEY: Yes.
NORA SHOURD: We knew each other before. I wasn’t answering the phone. She got the call first. You know, Shon had called the embassy in Baghdad, and then we heard through them.
AMY GOODMAN: Shon being the fourth hiker -—
NORA SHOURD: Shon Meckfessel, right.
AMY GOODMAN: — who we had on Democracy Now!, who wasn’t feeling well, so he didn’t go with them that morning.
NORA SHOURD: Yeah, he was in phone contact with them throughout the day. And that was — he was the one that got the last phone call.
CINDY HICKEY: Which we’re extremely grateful for.
NORA SHOURD: For sure.
AMY GOODMAN: Because they desperately called. They had their cell phone. And what did — was it Shane who called Shon?
CINDY HICKEY: Shane called Shon and said that “We’re being taken into custody by authorities.”
AMY GOODMAN: Iranian authorities.
CINDY HICKEY: I don’t even know if he was specific about —
AMY GOODMAN: Did they know they had crossed a border?
CINDY HICKEY: No, I don’t believe so. I mean, again, that was not something that I believe was discussed. But, you know, I am, myself, a hiker, and I’ve crossed borders accidentally myself, not knowing. There’s no way of knowing. So, could they have crossed accidentally? Absolutely. I know they had no intention of entering Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said the decision to release the three lay with the Iranian judiciary, but added that Iranians held in American jails should also be freed. Earlier this month, he said the three may be swapped with jailed Iranians in the United States.
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] We do not like to have anyone in jail. Some discussions are going on to swap the three with jailed Iranians in America. They entered illegally across our borders, and their crime is clear. But those Iranians who are in America’s jail have no clear crime.
AMY GOODMAN: In response, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the hikers were, quote, "being unjustly denied and should be released without further delay," but emphasized that there were no talks between the United States and Iran on a prisoner exchange. What’s your response to what the Iranian president has said, Cindy?
CINDY HICKEY: I feel like this should be totally separate. I mean, this is not about — it shouldn’t be about their US citizenship. If they indeed crossed the border by accident — and that’s what they did — they should be treated as such and released. I hope that this isn’t going to continue or be involved in our two nations in disagreement.
AMY GOODMAN: Is it frightening when you hear, for example, the headlines today, that I was just reading, of the escalation of tension with Iran? Do you feel like your kids are being caught, held as kind of pawns in this?
CINDY HICKEY: Well, we’ve seen the same media that everyone else has, and, you know, there’s been statements about the trade, the swap. So, you know, are we concerned? I try really hard as a mother to stay focused on the task and the goal of getting them released. I hear it. There’s no way I can deny that it doesn’t set some emotion, but I really try hard not to focus on that, because I have to be strong.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you met with President Obama?
CINDY HICKEY: No.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton?
CINDY HICKEY: Yes, we did have a private meeting with her.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did she tell you?
CINDY HICKEY: That they’re working —- you know, they’re doing the best they can. They’re doing everything they can for us. And -—
AMY GOODMAN: What is that?
CINDY HICKEY: There was no details given.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel that they’re doing all they can, Nora?
NORA SHOURD: You know, we think that, at this point, since our children are not released, that more can be done.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you want done?
NORA SHOURD: We don’t know what that looks like, what it could be, but we’re — you know, we’re feeling that more can be done.
AMY GOODMAN: We interviewed Shon, Shon Meckfessel, in November. He’s the so-called fourth hiker. He was traveling with Shane and Sarah and Josh, but he didn’t make it on that fateful hiking trip because he had a cold. He talked about the concerns for justice that motivate all of them.
SHON MECKFESSEL: So I understand clearly why the Iranian authorities would be curious about their presence, initially, and have some questions for them, but they know who they are at this point. They know what their characters are. Everything is publicly available. Anyone with questions about their character can look at their writings on the internet or, you know, clearly see our past, as it’s evident. And it’s obvious the kind of people they are. It’s obvious they’re not a threat to Iran, so I just don’t understand why they’re being held.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, you’ve delivered a petition to the Iranian embassy?
CINDY HICKEY: Yeah, quite some time ago, we delivered a petition.
AMY GOODMAN: What did the petition say?
CINDY HICKEY: It was a petition signed by people from all over the world asking for the release of Shane, Josh and Sarah.
AMY GOODMAN: And what was the response of the Iranian embassy?
CINDY HICKEY: Oh, I think —-
NORA SHOURD: It’s always difficult for us to tell what responses are. Sometimes they come in other forms for us. We think that, you know, everything that we do reaches them. We’re pretty sure that everything that we do reaches them, the letters that we’ve sent and the media that we do. And we look for reactions. We look for positive ones. The most recent one, we feel, is the most positive that’s been -— come out for a long time.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play an excerpt of the piece that Shane did for Democracy Now! Shane, a freelance journalist. Last year we aired his report on the US military allying with Sunni militias in Iraq. This is a brief part of that.
SHANE BAUER: In 2006, the American military and Iraqi police could hardly enter Baghdad’s Dora neighborhood without being peppered with bullets. But in 2007, the United States forged an alliance with its former enemies, offering money and military support in exchange for a promise to fight al-Qaeda. When we entered Dora this week, we found American soldiers laughing with these neighborhood militias.
In November 2008, the Americans handed these so-called Awakening councils, or Sahwas, to the Iraqi government. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised that 20 percent of the Sahwa forces would be brought into the army or police force, and the remaining would eventually be offered civilian jobs or a pension. But Sheikh Abu Suleiman, a Sahwa member decorated with American medallions in Dora, says he had higher hopes.
AMY GOODMAN: Just a clip of the piece that you can see in full — listen to, read and watch — on our website at democracynow.org. That is Shane Bauer, one of the three hikers who are being held. Cindy, how does it feel to hear your son’s voice?
CINDY HICKEY: It just makes me think about waiting for that — that call. You know, I’ve been waiting, waiting to hear his voice. Shane’s an awesome human being, and I’ve watched the things he has done. You know, it just — it makes me sad that he’s not with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, what do you understand are his conditions, the condition of Shane and Sarah right now? I know that Belgian cyclists were held for two months in solitary confinement in Iran, and when they came out, their statement was that they’re deeply concerned about your three kids, that they were held, had been held in solitary confinement. Do you know how they’re being held at the Evin prison?
NORA SHOURD: We don’t. We don’t know. It’s really, really hard for us to have no information for three months about these three. You know, being in prison is hard on anybody, and this is six months. They’re isolated from the world, you know? Haven’t had any friendly people come in to talk to them for more than three months. We’re worried they may have been put back in isolation. We’re worried about their medical condition at this point, psychological, for sure. You know, the interrogation, I’m sure, was very difficult. You know, we have many, many bad thoughts in our head right now about the darkness for them around all this. We need to see them.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what is — exactly what are you asking, this letter that you wrote to Ahmadinejad on Monday? What are you asking for, Cindy?
CINDY HICKEY: We’re asking that he expedite the process, the visa process, allow us to come to Iran to see our children and to allow us to have a meeting with him, so we can explain who these people are and why they should be released.
AMY GOODMAN: And have you gotten any response? How did you send this letter?
CINDY HICKEY: It’s an open letter, and we sent it — you know, we send our letters always the same way: we pass them on to the mission.
AMY GOODMAN: To the Iranian mission?
CINDY HICKEY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Does Shane and Sarah have sisters and brothers?
CINDY HICKEY: Shane has two sisters who are very close to him and miss him very much. They’re having an extremely difficult time with this.
AMY GOODMAN: And Nora, you’re a nurse in Oakland. Does Sarah have sisters or brothers?
NORA SHOURD: Sarah has an older sister and brother. And she has — one of my daughters has three young kids, and they really miss her, too. I’m sure she misses them.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you spend your days? How are you working to try to have them freed? You’re wearing — Cindy, you’re wearing a sweatshirt that says "Free the Hikers."
CINDY HICKEY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Nora, you’ve got a pin on. Do you wear that pin at work as a nurse?
NORA SHOURD: Yeah, we’re billboards. Our work — you know, my workplace is very supportive. There’s a lot of these sweatshirts hanging around at work these days. But, you know, mostly we try to get the word out as broadly as possible. And we have a lot of supporters. Our supporters are very creative. They’re always thinking of new things to do to help the kids and to get the word out.
AMY GOODMAN: What helps you the most?
CINDY HICKEY: Actually, the fact that all — that there’s three of us, three families involved, is very strengthening. Going to the website, looking at the YouTube videos. The —
AMY GOODMAN: The website is...?
CINDY HICKEY: Freethehikers.org. And looking at some of the testimonials. And I’ve said this often, that Shane and Sarah and Josh’s friends have stepped forward. They’ve come to us and said, “What can we do?” They’re beautiful people, and they’re a distinct reflection of who Shane, Josh and Sarah are. They’re peaceful and compassionate souls and hearts, and their friends reflect that. We’ve gotten so much support from around the world, that we really appreciate.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for coming in. I know you’re flying out immediately after this broadcast. And please keep us posted. And, of course, we’ll continue to cover this story of your children. Cindy Hickey is the mother of Shane Bauer. Nora Shourd is the mother of Sarah Shourd. Shane, Sarah and Josh Fattal have been held since July 31st by Iranian authorities. They’re in the Evin prison in Iran.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. They have just sent a letter asking to be able to see their children for the first time, to be able to go to Iran and to see them.