Worldview: Iran should free the hikers


Posted on Thu, Feb. 4, 2010

The regime gains nothing by keeping three Americans imprisoned.

By Trudy Rubin

Inquirer Opinion Columnist

More U.S. and international attention should be focused on the plight of three American hikers who have been languishing in solitary confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison for six months. They have had no access to a lawyer or any communication with their families, who have no idea of their condition or mental state.
This is a case that could – and still should – be resolved on a humanitarian basis. But it has become caught in the web of Iran’s domestic politics and troubles with the outside world.

On Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested that the Americans be exchanged for 11 Iranians supposedly held in the United States. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ruled out such a swap and called for the release of the hikers. There is no parallel between them and Ahmadinejad’s list, which includes defectors and men convicted of illegal arms deals.

The three Americans, all University of California at Berkeley graduates, went astray while trekking in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, where they apparently crossed an unmarked border into Iran. The Tehran prosecutor said Iran might charge them with espionage, but no charges have been brought.

You may wonder why Americans were vacationing in Iraqi Kurdistan. I can tell you, having been there: Those mountains are extraordinarily beautiful, and Kurds hike there on vacations. Moreover, Iraqi Kurdistan, unlike the rest of Iraq, is so peaceful one can forget that it’s surrounded by bad neighborhoods.

Sarah Shourd, 31, and Shane Bauer, 27, were living in Damascus, Syria, where she taught English and studied Arabic and he was a freelance journalist.

Josh Fattal, 27, who grew up in Elkins Park, had been living on an Oregon farm and teaching about sustainable development. He had just finished a stint as a teacher in a global travel program for college students, and was visiting with his friends on the way home.

If you visit the Web site set up by the hikers’ families,, you can see the three are youthful idealists and outdoorsmen. They may be guilty of carelessness in not checking their route with locals, but spies they are not.

Presumably, that has become obvious to the Iranians. Yet Swiss diplomats, who represent U.S. interests in Iran – with which we don’t have diplomatic relations – have been permitted only two visits with the hikers, the last in October. The hikers’ Iranian lawyer can’t get access to them or any information about the case; their mothers have applied for Iranian visas to visit them, but have received no reply.

It’s hard to imagine the effects of six months of isolation. Belgian tourist Idesbald van den Bosch, who was held for three months in Evin and saw one of the hikers, says: “I’m worried for their well-being because I know the effect solitary confinement had on me.”

So why are Fattal, Shourd, and Bauer being held indefinitely and incommunicado, which violates Iranian law?

The hikers have become pawns in Iran’s dispute with the United States and the United Nations over its nuclear program. Yet it’s hard to see how Tehran can profit from holding three civilians, whose case stokes international concern about Iranian violations of human rights.

Eighty leading academics, intellectuals, artists, writers, filmmakers, and journalists have signed a petition asking that the hikers be set free. They range from British billionaire businessman Richard Branson to Palestinian activist Hanan Ashrawi.

Tehran should take note that the list also includes MIT professor Noam Chomsky, a harsh critic of U.S. foreign policy, who says the detention hurts those who call for a shift in America’s approach to Iran. It also includes Terry Anderson, a journalist who was held hostage for seven years in Lebanon by Shiites linked to Iran. Does Iran want to remind the world of that outrage?

The world’s eyes are already on Iran in the run-up to the Feb. 11 anniversary of the 1979 revolution. Tehran’s regime faces more demonstrations by a (mostly) peaceful opposition protesting its government’s violation of its own laws and constitution. International human-rights groups have condemned mass arrests and torture of Iranian dissenters, along with the hanging of two protesters.

Holding the hikers any longer will further darken Iran’s global image. Better to heed South African Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu, who urged Iranian authorities “not to deny [the hikers] their freedom in order to express discontent with the United States.” Why not follow Tutu’s advice and free the hikers on humanitarian grounds?

Trudy Rubin can be reached at

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~ by fredfelleman on February 4, 2010.

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