In ironic twist, Iran detained US hikers critical of Israel and America

Just before Iran arrested three US hikers a year ago Saturday, one of them – Shane Bauer – had nearly finished an exposé on Israeli military aggression.

By , Correspondent

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    American hikers Shane Bauer, left, Sarah Shourd, center, and Josh Fattal, sit at the Esteghlal Hotel in Tehran, Iran, in this May 20 file photo.
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Just before Iran arrested US hikers Shane Bauer and his friends a year ago, he was nearly finished with an exposé on the Israeli army's use of illegal weapons against protesters.

“He would have published it long ago if he had not been arrested," says his friend Shon Meckfessel. "You would say the Iranians are standing in the way.”

In an ironic twist, Iran appears to have arrested a trio of passionate young Americans who espouse some of the same causes as Iran itself, particularly taking a stand against United States and Israeli aggression.

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Mr. Bauer, an Arabic-speaking journalist, had previously exposed pitfalls in the US strategy in Iraq. His fiancée Sarah Shourd was teaching Iraqi refugee children in Syria, where an estimated 2 million Iraqis fled during the US-led war in their country. And their college friend Josh Fattal had fought to get military recruiters off United States campuses.

Just weeks before the three were taken captive, says Mr. Meckfessel, they were in Israel to visit another friend, US activist Tristan Anderson. Shortly after taking photos during a demonstration against the Israeli separation barrier, Mr. Anderson was shot with a teargas canister in the head by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and hospitalized in Israel for a year.

“Often, when checking the Iranian press to see if there is any news about my friends, I have seen coverage of Tristan’s situation, which is, of course, very sympathetic … They see him as a hero for standing up to Israeli and US aggressions,” says Meckfessel. “The irony is they are celebrating Tristan as a hero, but holding his like-minded friends as spies.”

Meckfessel's account of the hiking trip

A year ago, the four friends had set out from Syria, where they were volunteering to help Palestinian refugees, on a hiking trip to Kurdistan, in Northern Iraq, recounts Meckfessel.

Staying in picturesque Suleimaniya, the plan was to go hiking and camping in the Zagros Mountains. On the morning of the proposed trip, Meckfessel says, he felt unwell and stayed behind, telling the others to go on without him – he would catch up the next day.

But the next day, July 31, he got a harrowing phone call from Bauer, who whispered that they were being held by Iranians and that he should immediately contact the US embassy.

It seems the three either crossed the border into the Islamic Republic, or wandered close enough to it to be picked up by Iranian soldiers. “It was the last thing I expected,” says Meckfessel. “The breath went out of my chest, I was so shocked. We had no interest in Iran. We did not even know we were that close.”

Working for his friends' release

On Saturday, it will be a year since they were taken into captivity in Iran, where they remain in Tehran's notorious Evin prison with almost no contact with the outside world. Swiss diplomats, who represent the US in Tehran have managed only three visits with the captives. An Iranian lawyer has had no access. And Shourd remains in solitary confinement 23 hours a day.

Meckfessel, who met the others when they all traveled down to Louisiana in 2005 to help people rebuild their homes after hurricane Katrina, has devoted the past year to trying to raise awareness about his friends – and help bring them home.

“I want to shed light on their background of social activism,” he says. “The problem is that coverage has flatted out. No one is talking about this.”

Mr. Anderson’s parents have written to the Iranian Authorities, imploring them to release the three. “With Tristan, they share common principles, projects, and community,” they wrote. “They are not instruments of their government, but independent thinkers.”

Meckfessel admits there has been a lot of negative speculation about the so-called hikers.

“A lot of people really think they are spies, or, if not, then some idiots, going on an extreme silly adventure. But no, we have a deep involvement in the region and were doing some of the things that Iran thinks are important to do. Is that not ironic?"

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