As a convoy of Swiss and Omani diplomats rolled through the gates of Tehran's Evin Prison on Wednesday afternoon, the relieved families of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, the American hikers held behind its gates for the past 26 months, were preparing to welcome them home a reunion further delayed this week by a last-minute power struggle between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his judiciary, and what the Iranian government said was the "vacation" of a cleric whose signature was needed on the hikers' bail paperwork.
The Americans were released after 3 p.m. local time, and Oman's envoy in Iran said in a statement that "the Islamic Republic of Iran has handled Shane and Josh to the custody of Dr. Salem Al Ismaily, the envoy of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the Sultan of Oman, a country that enjoys excellent relationships with both [Iran] and the USA. Dr. Al Ismaily with the hikers are now on their way to Muscat where they will spend a couple of days before heading home."
"Today can only be described as the best day of our lives," said members of the Bauer and Fattal families in a joint statement. "We have waited for nearly 26 months for this moment. We now all want nothing more than to wrap Shane and Josh in our arms, catch up on two lost years."
But even as the pair began their long journey home, questions were being raised about how their release had been secured the $500,000 bail posted for each of them by an unknown source or sources. Similar questions were raised last September when Bauer and Fattal's fellow hiker, 31-year-old Sarah Shourd, had been released to Omani officials after payment of a similar amount. The trio's Tehran-based lawyer, Massoud Shafei, declined to comment Wednesday on the source of the money.
Although the U.S. government does not make bail payments on behalf of citizens it had been widely speculated that Shourd's bail had been posted by the Omani government which has operated as a mediator between Washington and Tehran that rumor has never been confirmed. Some speculated that a similar arrangement may have been in place for Bauer and Fattal, although Bauer and Fattal's families have declined to comment on the issue.
On Sept. 13, President Ahmadinejad had said that he would seek a "unilateral pardon" for the two hikers, in what was widely seen as an attempt by the beleaguered Iranian leader to curry favor in the international community before his appearance at the United Nations General Assembly this week. But that suggestion was hastily slapped down by Iran's judiciary, which made clear the call was not the president's to make. In the end, the hikers were not pardoned, but released on "bail".
The men at the eye of the storm, both 29, had been captured in July 2009 along with Shourd while on what they say was an innocent hike along the Iranian border in Iraqi region of Kurdistan. Until then, Bauer and Shourd who became engaged in Evin last January, when he proposed in its exercise yard with a ring made out of an errant shirt string had been living in Damascus, where he was a freelance journalist for the Christian Science Monitor and the National and she taught English. Their friend Fattal, an environmentalist, had come for a visit.
After inadvertently straying their families say onto the Iranian side of the border, the three UC Berkeley graduates found themselves prisoners of the increasing hostility between the U.S. and Iran, and accused of spying for the U.S. On Aug. 20 it was announced that Bauer and Fattal had been sentenced to an additional eight years in Evin on charges of spying and illegal entry.
It was widely believed that the hikers were being used as a bargaining chip by an Iranian government eager to engage the U.S. in a prisoner swap.
Bauer and Fattal maintained their innocence throughout their 26 months in captivity. (Shourd, after finding a lump in her breast, was released on $500,000 bail in September 2010 in a move the Iranian government called a "humanitarian gesture.")
The two men have only had contact with their families on three occasions since their capture two short phone calls home (the last one in May) and one visit from their mothers in May 2010. Their lawyer says he was frequently denied access to his clients, as were Swiss diplomats who handle U.S. consular interests in Tehran. U.S. officials insisted on Bauer and Fattal's innocence, and global peace campaigners such as Muhammad Ali, Desmond Tutu and Iranian Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi have called for their freedom.
Although it remains to be seen if the release has any effect on U.S.-Iran tensions, the agony of the Bauer and Fattal families is finally at an end. Fattal hails from Elkins Park, Pa., and Bauer from Pine City, Minn. In May, Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey, said that she had expected her son's imprisonment to last no more than four months. Fattal's mother, Laura, had said that before the elevator doors had swung shut during her visit to Tehran during which she had originally assumed she would be bringing her son some they had sung a Bob Dylan song together, Dylan being their favorite artist. She promised to reveal the name of the song once Josh had returned.
According to the families, the two men shared a 10 by 14 foot cell during their time in Evin, Iran's most notorious political prison. The cell contained their beds, bathroom, shower and eating space. The two were allowed out one hour per day, to an exercise pen down the hall. Shourd says that since returning to the U.S. she has been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and that Bauer had been physically abused by prison guards, his head slammed repeatedly against a wall until it drew blood.