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Exclusive: Friend of American Hikers Detained in Iran Speaks Out

StoryNovember 02, 2009
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Shon Meckfessel

Seattle-based writer and activist and longtime friend of Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd.

Earlier this summer, Shon Meckfessel traveled with Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal from Damascus, Syria to Iraqi Kurdistan for a short vacation. Shon stayed behind at the hotel nursing a cold, while his three friends left for the hike. On the morning of July 31st, he set out to join them near a waterfall, when Shane telephoned him to say they had been detained. The three American hikers are now in Evin prison in Iran. Shon Meckfessel is sending a letter today to the Iranian president, urging him to release his friends and to consider that each of them has a "long and public record of contesting injustice in the world." [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show with a Democracy Now! national broadcast exclusive: an interview with Shon Meckfessel. He’s the fourth member of the group of the three Americans arrested by Iranian authorities in July while they were on a hiking trip. Shon traveled with Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal from Damascus, Syria to Iraqi Kurdistan for a short vacation this summer. Shon stayed behind at the hotel nursing a cold, while his three friends left for a hike. On the morning of July 31st, he set out to join them near a waterfall, when Shane telephoned him to say that they had been detained.

The three American hikers are now in Evin prison in Iran. Swiss diplomats, who represent US interests in Iran, have visited them on two occasions. On Capitol Hill, both the Senate and the House have passed unanimous resolutions encouraging Tehran to release Shane, Sarah and Joshua.

In September, the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed he would seek “maximum leniency” for the three detained Americans. Well, Shon Meckfessel is sending a letter today to the Iranian president, urging him to release his friends and to consider that each of them has a, quote, "long and public record of contesting injustice in the world."

Shon Meckfessel is a Seattle-based writer and activist, longtime friend of Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd. He joins me here in New York.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us what you are writing to Iranian President Ahmadinejad today.

SHON MECKFESSEL: It’s mainly an appeal for their immediate release. I have no idea why they’re still being held. I can’t imagine any questions that haven’t been answered as to their presence there. A lot of the letter is attesting to their character, as you mentioned. We all have long histories of fighting injustices and such. And I feel like it’s all clearly evident to the Iranian authorities that have been questioning them, and I just don’t understand why they’re still being held.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the day that they were taken. Talk about why you were in Kurdistan, how you guys decided to go to Kurdistan.

SHON MECKFESSEL: We were living in Damascus. We were studying Arabic. Shane was doing a bit of journalism, not actually in Syria, but in the area, such as the spot that he did for Democracy Now! Sarah had a week off work, and we decided that Iraqi Kurdistan was a really good place to go, because it’s close.

Several of our friends had already actually been there and said it was a really beautiful area. One of our friends said it was the most — the mountains around Sulaymaniyah, where we were heading, was the most beautiful area he had ever seen in the world. And there hasn’t been any — a lot of people think it sounds crazy to take a vacation to Iraq, but there hasn’t actually been any conflict in the Kurdistan area since 1991, when it gained autonomy. So we just — you know, it’s a beautiful area. It’s safe. And there’s actually — they’re encouraging a lot of tourism in the area now. So it wasn’t so crazy. And it, you know, was close, so...

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about what you had done before that fateful morning and what happened that morning and how you were feeling and what the decision was to do that day.

SHON MECKFESSEL: We traveled up through Syria on a bus, and we traveled through the corner of Turkey, because we had no desire to go any place unsafe. We didn’t want to go through central Iraq, so we went up through the corner of Turkey. We arrived in Erbil after our first day of travel, in Kurdistan, and walked around town. We had — that’s where the videos were taken that I released a couple days ago. And we actually thought we were heading to Dokan resort when we left Erbil. The bus took a different route than we planned on, routing us through Kirkuk, which is in central Iraq, so we were a bit worried about that.

But we arrived in Sulaymaniyah. We stayed in — we all stayed in the hotel the first night. And then we had some discussions the second day that we were there. Everyone else was really anxious to get out of the city. We had all been cooped up in these, you know, sort of smoggy cities for weeks. And they just wanted to get out into nature. We asked a lot of people around Sulaymaniyah, maybe ten, fifteen people, when I was there, what a good place to go to see the nature that we had heard so much about. And pretty much universally, everyone told us Ahmed Awa. We did have maps. A lot of — some people have thought that we didn’t have maps. We had maps, but the problem was Ahmed Awa is a tiny village, so it wasn’t on any of the maps that we consulted. So we just took people’s word for it.

And just before leaving, I was starting to feel — I had a fever, and I just didn’t feel that good, and especially I didn’t feel like sleeping outside, when that was really what everybody else really wanted. So I stayed behind at the hotel to get better. I said I’d be in touch with them. Luckily, I bought an Iraqi SIM card. I almost didn’t, and Shane said, “Well, if it’s just — it’s probably worth the bother just to make sure you catch up to us.” So I stayed over that night.

The next day, I called in the morning. They had had a beautiful time. The weather was really mild. And he said — I was talking to Shane. He said, you know, I should go join them. So I was actually on the bus to join them when I received Shane’s second call.

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us about that call.

SHON MECKFESSEL: Well, I wouldn’t call it panicked. He was definitely worried. He was definitely concerned. He sounded very serious. And he said that they were in trouble and that they had come onto the border of Iran and that they had been taken into custody. And I was just — when he said Iran, it was like I had heard they had just walked into Tuvalu or something. It was the furthest thing from my mind. It was the most shocking moment in my life, I think.

I just — I said, “Should I call the embassy?” which, in retrospect, is, you know — is pretty funny. It’s like, of course you should call the embassy. That’s what Shane said. “Yes, call the embassy.” But I just had no — I had no framework for it. It was just so out of my expectations. And I wished him well, and I said that I would call the embassy. And then we hung up.

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s been almost a hundred days now.

SHON MECKFESSEL: Almost a hundred days, yeah. And I’ve actually remained silent until now, because I sort of wanted to leave space for the investigation. 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: In the letter to Ahmadinejad, you mention Tristan Anderson, certainly someone we have covered a great deal on Democracy Now!, who has been critically injured covering protests in the West Bank. He was photographing, and he, himself, was critically hurt. Why raise Tristan Anderson? Talk about your relationship with him.

SHON MECKFESSEL: There’s a really brutal irony for me. There’s been times when I’ve checked the — I’ve checked Iranian press and — to see if there’s any news about Shane, Sarah and Josh, and they’ve had coverage of Tristan’s situation. And their coverage of Tristan’s situation is really sympathetic, which I really appreciate. But I’m not sure that this is known, up ’til now, that Shane and Sarah, and perhaps Josh, and I are really close friends with Tristan. I don’t know — do you have the picture that’s —

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, we have that picture.


AMY GOODMAN: We’ve been playing it.

SHON MECKFESSEL: I think if the Iranians have any remaining questions about their recent past, it’s probably about all of our trips to Israel. Shane and I had been in Israel about two weeks prior to this, to this incident, and the reason we were there was to visit Tristan. Shane, Sarah and Sarah’s mother Nora were actually the first friends, Tristan’s first friends from the US, to pay him a visit when this all happened. And like I said, it’s just a brutal irony to see that there’s sympathy shown for Tristan’s situation, which I very much appreciate, but that his closest friends are still being held by those same forces.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Shon Meckfessel was the fourth hiker. Shane, Sarah and Joshua are still being held by the Iranian government.

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