The mothers of the three American hikers jailed in Iran have returned to the United States after seeing their imprisoned children for the first time in ten months. Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal were detained in July after straying across Iran’s border during a hiking trip in northern Iraq. The mothers of the three jailed hikers — Cindy Hickey, Nora Shourd, and Laura Fattal — join us to discuss their visit with their children and their continued fight for their release. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: The mothers of the three American hikers jailed in Iran returned to the United States Saturday after seeing their imprisoned children for the first time in ten months. Shane Bauer, twenty-seven, Sarah Shourd, thirty-one, and Josh Fattal, twenty-seven, were detained in July after straying across Iran’s border during a hiking trip in northern Iraq. Their mothers arrived in Tehran last week after the Iranian government OKed their visas.
On Sunday, Iran’s intelligence minister said the three jailed Americans are spies but suggested his country would be open to a prisoner swap for Iranians being held in US custody. The US told Politico such a swap is out of the question, but it’s willing to provide consular access and answer any concerns Iran has about Iranians in US custody.
Last week, in their first public appearance since their detention, the three jailed hikers discussed their ten-month prison ordeal. Sarah Shourd said she spends most of her days in solitude.
SARAH SHOURD: This gesture, humanitarian gesture, it means everything in the world to us. I’ve been thinking about my mother’s face and seeing her smile and looking into her eyes for a really long time.
Our treatment is decent. It’s really difficult being alone. Shane and Joshua are in a room together, but I’m alone, and that’s the most difficult thing for me. But I see them twice a day, so…We have good food, and we have medical care, which is appreciated. And we have reading materials and television.
AMY GOODMAN: Shane Bauer told reporters he maintains hope for being released.
SHANE BAUER: We hope that Iran can continue with the humanitarian gestures, like letting our mothers come, by releasing us on humanitarian grounds.
AMY GOODMAN: And on a brighter note, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd are now engaged to be married. Bauer proposed to Shourd in the exercise yard of Evin Prison. Josh Fattal will be the couple’s best man.
Well, the mothers of the three jailed hikers join us today in our Democracy Now! studio. They’re just back from Iran. Cindy Hickey is the mother of Shane Bauer, Nora Shourd is the mother of Sarah Shourd, and Laura Fattal is the mother of Josh Fattal.
And we welcome you all to Democracy Now!
NORA SHOURD: Thank you.
LAURA FATTAL: Thank you.
CINDY HICKEY: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, if I can say congratulations, congratulations to the two of you on the engagement of Shane and Sarah.
CINDY HICKEY: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your experience going to Iran. Cindy, let’s begin with you.
CINDY HICKEY: The experience was long-awaited and overwhelming. You know, landing in Tehran just was very emotional for me, because I knew I was one step closer to my Shane. Meeting Shane was overwhelming. You know, my main goal to go there was to fill them with hope, let them know what’s happening here, and bring them home, which we didn’t get to do.
AMY GOODMAN: Nora, can you describe seeing your children? Where were you? Did you go to the prison?
NORA SHOURD: No, we weren’t allowed to go to the prison. We were in a hotel in Tehran, which was, I think, close to the prison. So the kids were brought there. They did not know we were there. So when they walked in this room — I’m sorry — they were just completely shocked to see us. It was really overwhelmingly emotional for us. I mean, for hours we didn’t want to let go of these kids. We couldn’t stop crying. I mean, it was like very difficult. Every time we think of the images again, this happens to us. I can speak for myself, it’s very hard to forget what we went through. You know, they were overwhelmed.
But what we did over the course of the day was what we set out to do, which is to tell them as much as we could about our campaign to get them released, all the things that we’re doing, how multifaceted that is, and how much support they have from their friends and their family and supporters around the world. We filled them with hope. And as the day went on, they became more relaxed. They started to get it, you know, because they have no information there. They started to get about what we were actually doing and started to feel better.
AMY GOODMAN: Had they known? Had they known, Laura, about all of the efforts around the world?
LAURA FATTAL: No, not at all. And Josh, Shane and Sarah were thrilled to hear that Desmond Tutu has spoken out three times, that Noam Chomsky has spoken out twice, that Cornel West has, of course, spoken out. And numerous, numerous other — seventy-nine public intellectuals have spoken out, when we had a campaign right after Thanksgiving here in the United States. And there are other individuals that have been critical in supporting them.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, there are others, internationals, who have been arrested in Iran. Can you talk about them and their periods of imprisonment?
LAURA FATTAL: Yes, there were British sailors who were —- whose boat drifted into Iranian waters in the fall, fall 2009, and they were let go after one week. Danish and Dutch reporters have been detained and let go after a very, very short period of time. And then, of course, there were Belgian bikers, three bikers, who were detained, I believe, three months. But our kids are detained ten months, ten months on Thursday. And so, with that in mind, we are asking the Islamic Republic of Iran, please let them go. You can speak to them. You have spoken to them. You know their story. These were hikers that, if they crossed the border into Iran, it was an accident.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He had this to say about the case on Good Morning America. The anchor, George Stephanopoulos, interviewed the Iranian president on May 4th, a day after he spoke at the UN’s conference on the Nuclear [Non—]Proliferation Treaty. Stephanopoulos asked the Iranian President about the jailed hikers.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Three American hikers have been in prison in Iran since last July 31st. No representation, no charges brought against them. Their parents made a direct plea to you to bring them here to the United States on your visit. Did you consider it at all?
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] Every country has very strict rules to control its borders. If anyone illegally entered US borders, do you think the US government will let them go freely, not bother them?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: They would be allowed to have representation. They would be charged.
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] Can anyone enter the borders illegally? Allow me. Can anybody enter the borders? No, they can’t. These three individuals entered our borders illegally. They have confessed to that. They crossed our border. Now they’re being handled by our judicial system, and the judicial system will review their crimes according to the law. We have laws. There’s a due process of law that is being observed. The judicial system in Iran is independent of political influence. It’s under the influence of judicial laws. But there’s three Americans who have crossed our border. First of all, why did they do that? What was their reason?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: They say they got lost.
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] They have to tell the judge exactly why they crossed the border. How do you know they got lost? Were you there?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I told you that’s what they said.
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] You were not there to see that they were lost.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I just have a very simple question. Will you allow them access to the outside world?
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] Your government is giving you news, and you accept it. You and I can’t judge. It’s the judge in Iran that will decide. They have to provide proof and evidence to the judge in Iran that shows that they lost their way or made a mistake.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Iranian President Ahmadinejad. Laura, your response? He says they just have to tell it to the judge.
LAURA FATTAL: We welcome any investigation. We understand the kids have not been investigated for six-and-a-half, seven months. In the beginning of the detention, which began on July 31st, they were interrogated. I think the Iranians have more information than they’d ever want to know about Josh, Shane and Sarah. And it is clear, if they crossed the border, it was a total accident. There is no question in anyone’s mind. And on our website, freethehikers.org, we detail every moment of their life and up until the capture on July 31st, and you can see what they were doing.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break. When we come back, I want to ask you about your three children, because we talk about the hikers, but they’re three young Americans who have very interesting and political lives, and I’d like to talk about where — how they came to be on the Iraq border with Iran. We’re talking to Laura Fattal, the mother of Josh Fattal; Cindy Hickey, mother of Shane Bauer; and Nora Shourd, mother of Sarah Shourd. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking with the mothers of the three hikers who have been held in the Iranian prison, the Evin Prison, for the last ten months, since last July, when they strayed over the border from Iraq into Iran. Laura Fattal, mother of Josh Fattal, is with us, Cindy Hickey, mother of Shane Bauer, and Nora Shourd, mother of Sarah Shourd.
So, let’s hear who these young people are. How did Sarah, Nora, end up there that day? Where did she go to school? Where did she grow up?
NORA SHOURD: Sarah went to UC Berkeley. She met Shane and Josh in Berkeley. They’ve been friends for a while, and Sarah and Shane are a couple.
They decided to go to the Middle East for different reasons, but the main reason is because they have a clear political ideology, I would say, which is against the US occupation in Iraq, the US policy in the Middle East. They wanted to document, write about and experience themselves what that meant to people in the Middle East.
When they were in Syria — this is an example, like, for instance, when the bombing started in Gaza, these two young people, Sarah and Shane, were in the streets with the Syrians demonstrating and asking why aren’t the Arab countries helping the Gazans, OK? They’re pro-Palestinian. Their friends in Syria are Palestinian. And one of the things we did when I was in Damascus to visit them is that’s when Tristan Anderson was shot. So the three of us went to see him in Israel, went to see him and support his parents and his family. This is just a small picture of the kind of kids that we’re talking about here.
AMY GOODMAN: Tristan Anderson was the American.
NORA SHOURD: The American that was shot by the Israeli troops at the Palestinian wall.
AMY GOODMAN: When he was photographing protests at the wall.
NORA SHOURD: Right, last March.
AMY GOODMAN: And he remains in Israel, right?
NORA SHOURD: He’s still in Israel.
AMY GOODMAN: In very serious condition.
NORA SHOURD: Still in the hospital, brain-damaged. A close friend of theirs. That’s why we went. So this kind of like fleshes out who they were. They weren’t just accidental tourists, you know, etc. They’re not just, you know, young hikers or adventurous people. They’re serious political people. They went there with the intention of learning more about Middle Eastern people. Sarah worked with the Iraqi Student Project there, which is a project that directly affects Iraqi refugees that are in Syria by helping them get their university educations back. This is what they were doing. So, to us, this is kind of like a deep irony, with their politics being what they are, that they’re being held in Iranian prison for this long.
AMY GOODMAN: So, how did they end up on the Iraq border?
NORA SHOURD: They had —- Sarah was teaching English in Damascus, and she had a week off. They went on vacation. They went to a place recommended by their friends in Syria, a tourist attraction. They were hiking. They didn’t know where they were. And they were detained.
AMY GOODMAN: So you see Sarah. You’re with her for what? One day or two?
NORA SHOURD: We had two days. We had six hours one day and four hours the next. It went by like a second. You know, we weren’t sure at the end of the first day that we would see them again the second day. Everything was always very vague. It was always in flux. We didn’t know. We didn’t know. We had to wait a lot. But it was wonderful to see these guys. I mean, they haven’t really had any contact with the outside world, except for three brief visits with the Swiss, since this all started. So this was overwhelmingly hopeful and encouraging for them.
AMY GOODMAN: Their lawyer?
NORA SHOURD: They have not seen their lawyer. We briefly got to see him for the first time there, when -—
AMY GOODMAN: He’s Iranian?
NORA SHOURD: He’s an Iranian lawyer.
AMY GOODMAN: Cindy, before we talk about what’s happening now with them in prison, talk about Shane Bauer, your son.
CINDY HICKEY: Well, the —-
AMY GOODMAN: Where was he born?
CINDY HICKEY: He was born in Minnesota, lived in California in the Bay Area for many years with his father, went to UC Berkeley. Again, you know, by the way, Shane and Sarah, I have to say, met organizing protests against the invasion of Iraq. So they’re very -— Shane has made it his work, at this moment of his life, to investigate and write about the wrongdoings of the US government in consideration to the Middle East. He’s very passionate about informing people about what’s happening in the world.
AMY GOODMAN: So he went to UC Berkeley, and then what?
CINDY HICKEY: He went to UC Berkeley, and then he traveled to Damascus, Syria, to, again, base himself in the Middle East so he could investigate and write about some of the things that he doesn’t agree with about US policy in conjunction with the Middle East.
AMY GOODMAN: Laura, talk about your son Josh. Where was he born?
LAURA FATTAL: Josh was born in Needham, Massachusetts. And when he was two, he moved with us, the whole family, to Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. And he grew up there, was president of the high school class, Cheltenham High School, year 2000, and then he went to college, and he went to college at UC, California, Berkeley and graduated in environmental economics and policy and has taken environmentalism very, very seriously.
And after graduation, he worked at Aprovecho, a sustainable living organization that’s outside of Eugene, Oregon, and he ran the internship program there for three-and-a-half years. But as an undergraduate at Berkeley, he did a study year abroad with the International Honors Program, which was about globalization. He went around the world for that group, based out of Boston, actually, Boston, Massachusetts, with thirty undergraduates, and they went to countries such as England, India, Philippines, New Zealand and Mexico, and came home. And so, after three years at Aprovecho, he decided to apply for a teaching fellowship with the IHP, the International Honors Program. And he did receive the opportunity to work for them for one semester, the spring semester of 2009, and he was the — had this fellowship, and he then traveled with thirty undergraduates to the countries of Switzerland, India, China and South Africa.
The story of Shane and Sarah and Josh overlap when Josh finished the teaching fellowship in South Africa, comes back to Europe, sees his brother in Europe, and then travels to the Mideast to catch up with Shane and Sarah, who have been living in Damascus for over a year, and he was just visiting them and then coming back and thought he’d spend some time with them. It was a hundred degrees in Damascus in July. They all wanted to go on this hiking vacation. They’re all eager hikers and very competent and experienced hikers. And this eight-day vacation has turned into a ten-month detention.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play a clip. We did this last time, too, Cindy, but you were talking about Shane doing reporting, writing about US policy, and this was a clip of — we’ll post the whole thing on our website — but of Shane Bauer’s piece for Democracy Now! on Iraq.
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, 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.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Shane Bauer’s piece. Again, we’ll post it at democracynow.org.
But now I wanted to turn to Shirin Ebadi. We recently interviewed this leading Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner in our studio, and I asked her about the jailed hikers.
AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think Iran is holding the American hikers? Do you think they are pawns in something larger? Or does Iran actually think that they are spies, the two young men and the woman?
SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] The government of Iran has announced that they are accused of espionage. But I don’t believe in that, because as soon as they stepped into Iran and on the border, they were apprehended. Even if they did have the intention of espionage, they had no time to carry it out, because they were apprehended right away. And if Iran believes that in another country they have performed espionage, then that country would be competent to try them. Why has Iran apprehended them? The accusation against these young people, if we can say that they have perpetrated a crime, is that they have crossed the border. And pursuant to Iranian laws, there’s only a fine to be paid for it, not imprisonment. The government of Iran should not have arrested these people.
AMY GOODMAN: Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from Iran. Does this help to have Shirin Ebadi speaking out? Let me put that question to Nora Shourd.
NORA SHOURD: Well, she’s speaking the truth, and the more truth that’s out there, the more it helps us. I mean, obviously, the kids are being used as pawns. They’re not guilty, of course. And, you know, we hear these charges all the time, and they’re ridiculous charges. But, you know, how we get past this particular problem, we don’t know, you know? It’s like the Iranian government seems to be asking the United States government for something. The United States government says they can’t give it. And here we are in the middle, and our kids are in the middle. So we keep asking for a compassionate release. This is what we do as mothers. We continue to ask for that, because obviously there’s no reason for them being held this long.
AMY GOODMAN: Does it scare you when I’m reading the headlines at the top of the broadcast, the top story, US authorizing major expansion of clandestine military operations abroad that includes intelligence gathering for a possible attack on Iran?
NORA SHOURD: Every time we hear the news, we cringe, OK? If it’s related to this country and our country, we cringe, because we know that it does have some effect on how long these kids are being held, and it makes us feel helpless in the middle of that politic not to be able to do anything. So we keep on our track.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about how they are keeping themselves sane in prison. Sarah is very isolated, right? You have Josh and Shane are in a prison cell together; Sarah, she’s alone?
NORA SHOURD: Sarah’s alone twenty-three hours a day, so she —- what she’s decided to do is make a very disciplined day of her day. She exercises three hours. She reads three or four hours. She does grounding exercises and yoga. She sings to herself. She sang some songs for us when we were there that she’s made up about freedom.
She looks forward to her time with the guys, because they give themselves like little assignments, like today we’re going to discuss an ethical question, and then they think about it for twenty-four hours, and they come back and they do this. Or they make something they call prison pie, which is like these ingredients they put together, and they take them out to the courtyard and make this little mushy date thing, and they eat it. That’s prison pie. They have activities every day, almost like they were in school. You know, Sarah is a teacher, so I think she has a lot to do with this assignment thing. And they -—
AMY GOODMAN: They see each other for two half-hour —-
NORA SHOURD: Two half-hour segments, so, you know, they’ve got to jam it in. They go outside in every kind of weather. They call it -— there’s a word for it in Farsi, and I’m going to say it wrong, but it means “eat fresh air,” and it’s something like ”hovahuri” [phon.]. So they go to hovahuri, and this is like what keeps them going every day. They read books, and they write about what they read and discuss it. They’re keeping themselves alive in this way.
AMY GOODMAN: When did Shane propose to Sarah, Cindy?
CINDY HICKEY: It sounds like January. He said January. We don’t know of the specific date. But Josh actually stayed back that portion of the day, and Shane and Sarah went outside. And he had made — he had wove a ring for her out of string off of his shirt. So he put that together and proposed to her.
It was kind of sweet how they told Nora and I about this proposal. We were on the couch. They sat down on the floor in front of us, held hands and said, “We have something to tell you.” Shane said, “I proposed to Sarah.” The first thing they asked us is “Is that OK with you?” Absolutely. I love Sarah like a daughter. She’s an unbelievable woman, and I’m very grateful to have Nora and Sarah both join our family.
AMY GOODMAN: Josh will be best man?
NORA SHOURD: Best man.
LAURA FATTAL: Yes, he will. And really, the connection between all three kids is fantastically strong, and I know it’s keeping them going. This is a fabulous trio. They have — Nora and Cindy started talking about the organization of the day, but Shane and Josh exercise two hours a day. I believe they run in place a certain amount of time. They read books, and they discuss in depth certain parts of the book. They study. I believe some of them are studying for their GRE. They have plans for the future. And it’s an enormously organized day. You know, they celebrated, I believe, the vernal equinox, which was the Persian New Year, Nowruz. And they’ve done other holidays during the year.
AMY GOODMAN: Do they talk to their captors, to the prison guards?
LAURA FATTAL: I think very, very minimally. They do not have a working vocabulary of Farsi, and it’s because the interchange between the guards and the kids is very minimal.
AMY GOODMAN: What of the Iranian intelligence minister’s suggestion of a prisoner swap?
LAURA FATTAL: This has been going on since October. We have heard the words “espionage,” and we’ve heard the words “prisoner swap” from October. The kids were taken the last day of July. So it is not news. It arrives, it disappears, it comes forward, it disappears, and nothing has come of it.
AMY GOODMAN: This is for Iranians in US custody.
LAURA FATTAL: Yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: The prisoner swap.
LAURA FATTAL: Yes, the swap between our kids and Iranians in American prisions, yes. And so, of course, we always get terribly, you know, alert and fearful of what will go on, but it has been going on for over six, seven months, that sort of language of swaps and the espionage.
AMY GOODMAN: And how is the US government working to free your children, Cindy?
CINDY HICKEY: You know, Amy, that’s a good question. You know, we aren’t privy to the information and what they’re doing behind the scenes. You know, we hope they’re doing absolutely everything they can. We, of course, have to — we don’t have the control that they have. We, of course, have to proceed in our humanitarian efforts. But I hope they’re doing everything they can. And, you know, that’s kind of a closed door to us.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you met with Hillary Clinton?
CINDY HICKEY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And what does she say?
CINDY HICKEY: You know, that they’re doing everything they can. That’s what we hear. We’ve met with her twice.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama?
CINDY HICKEY: No.
AMY GOODMAN: Josh’s class, high school class, has organized — he was the high school president?
LAURA FATTAL: Yes. We have received fantastic support. The high school even — every morning in morning announcements in the high school, they do number of days detained, in the high school. His college friends, videos and poems sent to me for me to send to him.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you able to send him letters?
LAURA FATTAL: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: Are they all getting their letters?
NORA SHOURD: You know, they’re getting different numbers. They’re getting direct — members of the family, those letters go through. Sarah said she’s gotten about sixty.
AMY GOODMAN: How important is this to her?
NORA SHOURD: Oh, you know, it’s life-saving. She reads them over and over and over and over again, and she said it helps her to dream. You know, these are like images. They want images, you know, and one of the things they asked us to do is they said, “When you go home, please ask our friends and our supporters and our family to have a day of freedom for us and then to write about it and try to get it back to us somehow. Enjoy their freedom, describe it to us in minute detail, whatever it is that you do, and give it back to us, if you can,” which is a nice request. We’re going to try to do that on the 300th day.
AMY GOODMAN: And where do people send these letters?
NORA SHOURD: To the website.
LAURA FATTAL: To the website. And we have a blog link that you put on.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s freethehikers.org.
LAURA FATTAL: Yep.
CINDY HICKEY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Cindy, last word?
CINDY HICKEY: Just again to ask everyone for their support and continue to the letter writing to the P.O. box, continue to put pressure on our government to do everything they possibly can. That’s very important. Again, we have no control over what they’re doing. We need to apply pressure.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us. Best of luck to you, Laura Fattal, mom of Josh Fattal; Cindy Hickey, mother of Shane Bauer; and Nora Shourd, mother of Sarah Shourd.