US hikers sentenced to 8 years in Iranian prison

Two young Americans who had been arrested by an Iranian border patrol while hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan and who have been held in prison in Iran for more than two years have now been sentenced to eight years in prison for illegal entry and espionage. The third hiker, Sarah Shourd, had been released in September 2010.

Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, both 28, were travelling through Iraqi Kurdistan and visited the Ahmed Awa waterfall which is on the Iraqi side of the Iran-Iraq border. It is unclear if they accidentally ventured into Iranian territory on their hike or if the Iranian border patrol arrested them in Iraqi territory.

The American hikers are being held at Evin prison in Tehran, where I was imprisoned for one week in the summer of 2009. Because of my own experience, I have special sympathy with Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer. Having been to Evin for one week was the toughest experience of my life; I cannot imagine what it must be like to spend two, let alone eight years there.

It is from this perspective and with this background that I want to answer the following questions:

Can they appeal the court ruling?

Yes, they can. But we must not think of this affair as a judicial proceeding. It is labelled a trial, but it isn’t. Iran does not have an independent judiciary, it is not governed by the rule of law and lawyers who stand up for their clients go to jail themselves. Iran is an autocracy in which laws, courts and judges are just another means of oppression.

We also must not think of the Iranian state as a monolithic entity. There are many different factions, some more religious than others, some more radical than others, some might think that a rapprochement with the US and the West in general is a worthwhile goal, others think that America will always be “the Great Satan”. Even experts have therefore been notoriously unable to explain or predict the moves of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Why did Josh and Shane travel to Iraq in the first place? Everyone knows it’s dangerous.

This is the question that drives me crazy. It puts the blame on the victims. The three American hikers had been travelling Northern Iraq which had been absolutely safe and had become a tourist destination. They were going to see a waterfall. There is nothing criminal or wrong about this. The fault lies exclusively with the state that captured and imprisoned them.

Unfortunately, many people are quick to comment who are themselves couch potatoes and whose biggest adventure in live has been a weekend in Las Vegas. These people will never understand that in order to gain a real understanding of the Middle East, one has to travel, experience, speak to people.

I feel very sorry for Josh and Shane not only because of their very long imprisonment, but also because I know from my own experience after my release from Evin prison that 95 % of people will tell them “Why on earth did you go there?” (“there” referring to any part of this world that doesn’t have a McDonald’s or where you have to speak another language). Many will think “You got what you deserved”, and some will even say so. – In my experience, it was actually Iranians who had the most understanding, because they know from experience that being arrested in Iran doesn’t mean that you did anything wrong, and who often apologised for their regime.

But how do you know the three US hikers weren’t really spies?

They were definitely not, for at least two reasons:

No country would send spies to Iran that don’t speak Farsi , don’t look Persian, don’t have an Iranian name, don’t have any contact there, and so on. These three hikers would have stood out in Tehran like the proverbial sore thumb, especially because Iran does not attract much Western tourism. If somebody wanted to send spies to Iran, one would recruit from the vast community of Iranian exiles or refugees.

No intelligence agency would ever send three agents to a hostile country together in one group. They would go independently of each other, at different times, using different routes. Ideally, they would not even know each other.

I assume that the Iranian intelligence service already thought that Shane Bauer is a spy because his name is so similar to Jack Bauer of “24”, a series which also has many fans inside Iran.

So what can we do to get them released?

  1. First, let’s be clear about what won’t help: Appeals, letters, press releases. I can already see the many statements “condemning” this verdict and “appealing” for mercy. This is all a waste of time.
  2. Sarah Shourd was released on bail of 500.000 $. Maybe we could also pay ransom for the two remaining hikers, but the price has certainly gone up. You could think of the eight years prison sentence as the price tag which has to be converted into money, arms (remember the Iran-Contra affair?) or political favours.
  3. So what can we do that Iran wants? Not much, if we want to stick to the sanctions. We could stop secretly attacking the Iranian nuclear programme (if we even do that), but if that works, Iran will just hold on to the hostages as security. We could allow Iran more influence in its two neighbouring countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, but as we get ready to pull out soon, Iran will gain this influence anyway.
  4. One contemporary movement in the US certainly angers Iran and we could easily give that up: the campaign to remove the “People’s Mujahedin of Iran” from the list of terrorist organisations. I doubt if this will be enough, but if the US wants to approach the diplomatic route, this will have to be one of the first steps.
  5. There is no (para)military option to liberate and extract the prisoners. The daring attempt by Ross Perot to liberate two of his employees from an Iranian prison in 1979 did not succeed militarily; the prison was stormed during the course of the Islamic Revolution and all inmates were freed. Operation Eagle Claw, the attempt to liberate the US embassy hostages, failed. – Evin prison is located on the very Northern outskirts of Tehran, surrounded by mountains. The closest entry point into Iran to reach Tehran would be through the Caspian

    Not an option.

    Sea in which we have neither a base, nor any forces. From both Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s too far to fly undetected. Ashgabat in Turkmenistan, is used by the US military as an airport, but is still 670 km away. Even at maximum speed, this means more than two hours of flight time for a Black Hawk helicopter. – And even if you find the two men in the quite large complex of Evin prison (I was driven around by car between several buildings during my stay there) you would still need to get back to safety. Impossible.

  6. This leaves only one option: We need to arrest Iranians abroad whom the Iranian government would want to get freed, and then there will be a prisoner exchange. This suggestion might be inspired by my upbringing during the Cold War, but I think it’s the only strategy that will work. There are plenty of representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran who do not enjoy diplomatic immunity (trade delegations, Press TV, companies held by the Iranian state).

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Iran, Politics, Travel, USA and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to US hikers sentenced to 8 years in Iranian prison

  1. You dufus They did NOT go to see the waterfall Ahmed Awa, they spent no time at the freeking waterfall. THEY hiked starting at night when they were dropped off at 8 pm, as told by the 4th hiker Shon Meckpussel pus face, and continued early next morning, MILES, HOURS BEYOND the tourist site UP, UP, the hilly land where EVEN the locals dare not go. Now that is some hike,! in the mid East summer heat where temps reach above 35c. GET YOUR STORY RIGHT> These fools have done much to inflame the 2 countries who are chomping at the bit to go to war.This was no doubt their mission!Iran gave them a trial and gave them 8 years justice served , go cry

    • Robert Clarke says:

      People hike. The ‘inflaming’ sounds like your hope. The ‘justice’ is nonsense, as anyone with access to news could figure out. Jury is out, but you need a better argument.

  2. Oh yes are you even aware that the ****hikers**** went from Syria to ISRAHELL less than a month before they trekked off into to Iran , 2 freeking times Shane *visited* Israel… While living in SYRIA, once with Sarah,with her visiting aging hippie mother Nora In March 2009 and again with and Shon Meckfessel the 4th ****sick ***** hiker July 1 2009? ONLY PROBLEM IS THIS…Syria states that if you have an Israhell stamp on your passport , you will not be allowed back into Syria! Seems the ****hikers*** had no problem with this,How did thaey manage to get back into Syria 2 times???? Also seems they did not need a visa to get into Turkey , and Iraq. You explain this to me??????Get the facts before you try to spin a story you have no information on. If need be, I can and will send you the proof to back up what I say here. Stop the spin!

    • The “Israeli passport stamp problem” is not a problem for smart travellers because Israel is aware of some of the Arab countries’ policies and this issues the entry stamp on an extra piece of paper if you request so upon entry. Thus, your passport is not “tainted”.

      Also, there is no open border between Israel and Syria, so nobody goes from Israel to Syria as you stated. You would need to go through Jordan which has no problem with visitors from Israel.

      No one needs a visa for Turkey.

      I have visited all of these countries myself.

  3. John Erickson says:

    I really hate to say this, but I must admit to some agreement on questioning why they chose this particular tourist destination. it would be easy to get an understanding of the region without “baiting the bear”, or whatever animal avatar is used for Iran. That being said, coming from a free country gives them the freedom to be adventurous, or stupid, or whatever you want to call it. “Serves them right” is NOT a valid response. 8 years in a hellhole prison for stupidity? Sorry, that’s stiff even by my conservative standards.
    As to negotiating, I agree completely. Pleas will be ignored, White house statements are worse than useless, heartfelt entreaties from the parents will fall on deaf ears. Money will work. I cringe at arms trades, unless we can pull something from the movie “Deterrence” and sell them non-functional weapons. Maybe a few centrifuges with bad bearings? (Kidding! I’m kidding!)
    And with all due respect, Ms. Whiste (or whatever your name may be), your argument would be quite a bit more compelling without the “hippie”, “Israhell”, and other biased comments. If you want to be believed, present facts. If you want to rant, don’t expect to be taken seriously, even if your facts are unshakeable. No insult intended, just a debating hint.

  4. Dex says:

    Nice article! And you’re right… option # 6 is the only one that would work..

  5. heatherf232 says:

    “These people will never understand that in order to gain a real understanding of the Middle East, one has to travel, experience, speak to people.”
    If you feel that risking prison or even death makes achieving some grand knowledge of the Middle East worth it than more power to you, just make sure your view is pure not motivated by your ego.
    Those that really should have an understanding of the Middle East are our diplomats whose job is specifically such and who travel protected. If you want to gain an understanding to be educated about the culture and people, then reach out to Iranian or Iraqi Americans living here and talk to them about their experience. I have Persian friends whose families fled Iran and they have stated they would not be caught dead even a mile from the border of Iran because they clearly understand what you do not – if you play with fire you get burned.

  6. inchoative says:

    Agree they could not have been spies in the conventional sense. But there are too many internal inconsistencies in the composite narrative not to make the whole thing stink of red herrings. The tea server said she asked how to get back to Iran…either she’s lying, or he’s being paid to lie. And from having done several hiking trips in the rural American West myself, I know that, past 8:30pm, the last thing one is going to do is to keep on pressing forward on a difficult uphill route. It’s not like this is at the latitude of Scotland…it would have been almost dark by then. Maybe for a certain kind of egotistical political activist based in the Middle East, the ultimate power trip would be to be able to say that you’d “just accidentally wandered into Iran” but made it back safely. So, maybe they were poking the tiger in that sense and it didn’t quite work out as expected. I knew an activist who proudly bragged of her arrest by Israeli security forces for years, when she was advocating for the Palestinians. That probably gets you massive, instant hipster cred at NYU parties, as would any tale of adventures within the “Axis of Evil” (LOL). Alternately, someone local could have had an ulterior motive to dupe them or coerce them into mistakenly getting too close to the border, and/or to tip off Iranian guards to their closeness to the border even if they weren’t yet over it. Such theories are discussed on other blogs. Still I find it hard to believe that smart young people, who were highly experienced with travel in the Middle East, would haphazardly approach an unmarked border with a country known for the hostility of its security forces towards outsiders. It’s not like they were hayseeds who had just left the cornfields of Iowa for the first time in their lives. It just took me all of 45 seconds using google maps to see that these waterfalls are very, very close to the border.

    Also agree with Heather’s point…there’s a lot more to “understanding” than traveling and speaking to people. I have known Americans who spent one or more summers backpacking across Europe, including Eastern Europe and parts of the former USSR, yet who still had the most infantile and ahistorical comprehension of Europe imaginable.

  7. Pingback: US hikers sentenced to 8 years in Iranian prison | The Happy Hermit | College Events

  8. stef says:

    Well, if you travel you have to respect the law. Otherwise you are just arrogant

  9. Pingback: Der beste und gleichzeitig schlechteste Pass der Welt | Der reisende Reporter

  10. Pingback: The German passport is the best – and the worst – passport in the world | The Happy Hermit

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