If Sarah Shourd, 31, could have, she would have set sail on the recent flotilla to Gaza. Same for her boyfriend Shane Bauer, 28 and their friend Josh Fattal, 28. And they would probably be out there right now, demonstrating against Israel’s reaction, the blockade in general, and well, Israel in general.
That’s the kind of thing they believe in. Those are the sorts of activities they do. “These are like three Rachel Corries,” says their friend Shon Meckfessel, comparing them to the activist killed in Gaza who has become something of a symbol of the pro-Palestinian movement, “…we have spent out whole adult lives contesting injustices in the Middle East.”
Except for now, none of those three young Americans is doing much of anything. On Saturday, it will be a year since they were taken into captivity in Iran, where they remain, in Evin prison, with almost no contact with the outside world.
Meckfessel, who was traveling with them when they were taken captive, is frustrated that so little is being done to get them released. “It just does not feel like a priority for the U.S. administration,” he complains. Is it because they are Americans who were critical of U.S. and Israeli actions? “I definitely wonder about that,” he says.
Swiss diplomats, who represent the U.S. in Tehran have managed only three visits with the captives. An Iranian lawyer has had no access. And Shourd, in solitary confinement, is said to be increasingly depressed.
The three are accused of being spies who entered the country to gather information and incite resistance to the regime - but no official charges have been made, and there is no trial date scheduled. All of which leaves the “American hikers” as they are called, in total limbo.
A year ago, the four friends had set out from Syria, where they were living and teaching in a Palestinian refugee camp, on a hiking trip to Kurdistan, in Northern Iraq, recounts Meckfessel. Staying in picturesque Suleymania, the plan was to go hiking and camping in the Zagros Mountains.
On the morning of the proposed trip, Meckfessel felt unwell and stayed behind, telling the other to go on without him – he would catch up the next day. That evening, he spoke on the mobile with the group twice, and they told him about a beautiful waterfall they visited near the village of Ahmed Awa. The group had maps, insists Meckfessel, but they were not detailed.
The last time Meckfessel heard from them was the next day, July 31, 2009, at 1:13 P.M., when Bauer called him, whispering down the line that they were being held by Iranians - and that he should immediately contact the U.S. 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.”
He admits there has been a lot of negative reaction to this story. “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. The irony is we were even doing work on some of the issues that Iran speaks about."
Just weeks before the three were taken captive, for example, he says, they were in Israel to visit another friend, Tristan Anderson, who was hospitalized for a year after being shot with a teargas canister in the head - by the IDF - while taking photos during a demonstration against the wall in Ni’lin.
“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 keep calling him a hero for standing up to Israeli and U.S. aggressions,” says Meckfessel. “The irony is they are celebrating Tristan as a hero, but holding his like-minded friends as spies.”
Anderson’s parents themselves have written to the Iranian authorities, imploring them to release the Americans. “With Tristan, they share common principles, projects and community,” they wrote. “They are not instruments of their government, but independent thinkers.”
At the time he was abducted, Bauer, a freelance journalist, was almost finished with an expose article on the IDF’s use of purportedly non-lethal weapons against protesters like Anderson. “He would have published it long ago if he had not been arrested…You would say the Iranians are standing in the way," says Meckfessel. "How ironic is that?"
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