U.S. hikers imprisoned in Iran on way home
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Racing to meet the outstretched arms of their cheering families on the tarmac in Oman's capital, American hikers Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer alighted from the plane that had whisked them out of Iran, and reveled finally at the room to romp.
Mr. Bauer spun in the arms of his fiancee, Sarah Shourd, who had been set free in similar fashion a year ago. Mr. Fattal, of Elkins Park, a Philadelphia suburb, gripped his brother, Alex, in an endless bear hug.
For 26 months, Mr. Fattal and Mr. Bauer, both 29, were imprisoned in Iran, which last month convicted them of espionage -- charges they and supporters all the way up to President Barack Obama had denied -- and imposed eight-year sentences. Their continued detention had further inflamed tensions between the United States and the Islamic Republic.
A flurry of diplomatic activity over the last week, principally by Omani, Iraqi, and Swiss go-betweens, produced their freedom Wednesday after $1 million was paid anonymously, through Omani mediation, in what Iran called "bail" to free the pair.
"Today can only be described as the best day of our lives," the men's families said in a statement. "The joy and relief we feel ... knows no bounds."
At a brief news conference at the Muscat airport, Mr. Fattal and Mr. Bauer looked clean but tired.
"We are so happy we are free and so relieved we are free," Mr. Fattal said. "Our deepest gratitude goes towards his majesty, Sultan Qaboos of Oman, for obtaining our release."
"Two years in prison is too long," said Mr. Bauer, who is from Minnesota, "and we sincerely hope for the freedom of other political prisoners and other unjustly imprisoned people in America and Iran."
They took no questions. Omani authorities said they would probably spend at least one day in the Persian Gulf nation before returning to the United States.
Mr. Obama, speaking to reporters at the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, said he was "thrilled for the moms" -- Laura Fattal and Mr. Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey -- who had visited him in the Oval Office to plead for his help.
The mothers last saw their sons during a brief visit the women were allowed in Tehran in May 2010.
"The tireless advocacy of their families over these two years has won my admiration and is now coming to an end with Josh and Shane back in their arms," the president said in an earlier White House statement.
Oman's foreign ministry, in a statement, offered "sincere thanks and appreciation" to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Iran's government, and expressed hope "that this humanitarian gesture be followed by other positive initiatives" to improve Iranian-U.S. relations.
The long ordeal had aggravated tensions over the Islamic Republic's nuclear power program, which the United States contends is a cover for developing nuclear weapons. The two countries do not have direct diplomatic relations.
Mr. Fattal and Mr. Bauer will need time to unwind in the protective setting of their families, said Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, who was herself imprisoned in Iran on suspicion of espionage in 2007 before being released 100 days later.
"No matter how strong you are and how secure you feel, once you get back at home, these memories come back, haunting you," she said in an interview. "Someone rings the bell or bangs the door and you jump.
"You don't know what [their jailers] told them in the last minute [before release]: 'We'll be after you. We'll bring you back.' They have to sort out their freedom in peace and quiet. They also need to know what took place in their absence."
Ms. Esfandiari said that when she was freed, a friend's daughter "brought me three DVDs with every news article, every intervention. ... It was an eye-opener. These young men probably don't know what happened in their absence, and when they find out, it will give them a sense of strength and security that they were not forgotten."
Earlier Wednesday, while awaiting confirmation that Mr. Fattal was free, Philadelphia-area supporters began cautiously to exhale.
"Relieved. The word is relieved," said Joey Boxman, who attended Myers Elementary School and Cheltenham High School with Mr. Fattal, graduating together in 2000.
Mr. Fattal, Mr. Bauer, and Ms. Shourd, of California, friends from their days at the University of California at Berkeley, say they were on a one-week vacation, hiking in a tourist region of northern Iraqi Kurdistan, when they were arrested by Iranian guards on July 31, 2009. If they crossed Iran's unmarked border, their supporters say, it was accidental.
Ms. Shourd, who reportedly was ill in prison, was let go a year ago on what Iran called humanitarian release after an unnamed source paid $500,000 bail mediated by Oman. She and Mr. Bauer had become engaged in prison.
Iran has never publicly presented evidence against the hikers. Critics of Iran have likened the bail-for-freedom deal to the payment of ransom for hostages.
The two men were released while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had told American TV interviewers last week that the pair would be released in "a couple of days," was in New York for the U.N. meeting. The delay in their release was attributed to infighting between Ahmadinejad and Iran's ruling clerics.
Participants in the effort to free the hikers, including representatives of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said they hoped the resolution of the case would improve U.S.-Iranian relations and lead America to reciprocate.
"We hope our government will now address the issue of Iranian citizens detained in the United States with the same spirit of compassion that resulted in the release" of Mr. Fattal and Mr. Bauer, CAIR executive director Nihad Awad said.
In his last contact with Ms. Fattal about a week ago, said Mr. Boxman, she expressed the hope they would have "open house for a month ... to thank everyone who has been involved and to let them see Josh for themselves."
Former Cheltenham High School principal Joseph Rodgers choked up during a telephone interview earlier Wednesday as he described the courage of the mothers' campaign to free their sons. "In a world where so many things seem unsure," he said, "there was a quality about these two mothers standing up against seemingly the entire world with such grace and dignity."
Mr. Rodgers, who retired from the Cheltenham schools in 2004, remembered Mr. Fattal as a "very distinct personality" whose "resilience and strength" no doubt helped him during his incarceration.
He recalled Mr. Fattal as having "optimism, realism, a tremendous sense of humor and being a tolerant person."
First Published September 22, 2011 12:00 am