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American hikers Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal, and Sarah Shourd wait to see their mothers at the Esteghlal Hotel in Tehran, in May. (AP/Press TV)

Three hikers in Iran, one year on

By Joel Simon/Executive Director on July 27, 2010 3:27 PM ET

On July 30, three American hikers in Iran will have endured an entire year in custody, held without charge or a modicum of due process. This is obviously a terrible injustice, so much so that it surprises me when I mention their situation to skeptical friends or colleagues who believe that the three were foolish to hike along the Iranian border and should have anticipated the consequences.

Let me clear from the outset, as I have in previous posts. This is not a press freedom issue per se because the hikers—only one of whom is a journalist—were not on a reporting trip when they apparently strayed across the Iranian border while hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan (The Nation reports that they may have been captured in Iraq by Iranian agents).

Yet CPJ has spoken up to affirm Shane Bauer’s journalistic credentials because, regardless of the circumstances, a professional colleague has been unjustly detained. The other two hikers are Sarah Shourd, 31, who taught English and lived with Shane in Damascus who and their friend, Josh Fattal, 28, an environmentalist they knew from college who had joined them for vacation.

Shane was a correspondent for New America Media (NAM), whose editor, Sandy Close, gave me my start in journalism. NAM, which started as Pacific News Service (PNS), is a unique media operation made up of a network of independent freelancers around the world. I covered Mexico and Central America for PNS back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. My assignment was to keep my eyes open, talk to as many people as I could, and file when I came across a good story.

Of course Sandy’s idea of a good story was different from most editors—she wasn’t particularly interested in politicians and diplomats, she wanted new and unconventional perspectives reported at ground level. You could never take Sandy for granted. If you filed a story that matched The New York Times she was unimpressed. Four rewrites were par for the course.

What this meant was that I was never off duty. I might come across a story while vacationing at the beach, or while hiking up a volcano, or while watching a parade. And I took some chances to see new things and meet people who were not talking to the big-time correspondents. Nothing too terrible happened to me, but it could have.

Shane and his friends decided to take a vacation in Iraqi Kurdistan, an unconventional destination to some but only a moderately adventurous undertaking for someone living in Damascus. Shane took his camera, and Sandy says she had an understanding that he would file a story if he came across anything interesting.

Of course, he’s got a hell of a story now, but he’s also got a major problem communicating with the rest of the world. But the point is this: I understand and identify with the spirit of adventure that led Shane and his friends to take some chances and obviously make some bad decisions. I could certainly envision a scenario where I might find myself in the same situation.

I hope the perception that the hikers made some bad decisions does not blunt our sympathy and concern for three young people who have now become pawns of a cynical and corrupt regime. I know the families have struggled to keep their children’s fate in the public eye. I hope that a year of cruel injustice will spark additional interest, concern, and increasing demands for Iran to end this charade and let the hikers come home.


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