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Shane Bauer, Joshua Fattal, and Sarah Shourd


Country: Iran

Captured: July 31, 2009

Status: Released


The landmark case of Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal, and Sarah Shourd (also known as “the Hikers”) involves the high-profile detainment, captivity and espionage convictions of three Americans captured by Iranian forces while hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan near the unmarked border of Iran in 2009.  This case is marked by a number of characteristics common of show trials, such as international media attention, false charges and political motives.  The elements of this case that are arguably the most unique are related to the sophisticated grassroots campaign that it spurred, and the unorthodox negotiations that led to their release.

This situation involved one of the most aggressive and well-branded grassroots campaigns to date, led by the prisoner’s three families.  The Free the Hikers campaign applied lessons from other show trials to advance their knowledge and hone their approach.  Themselves journalists and activists, the three hikers benefitted from circles of friends and advocates with pre-existing knowledge about media who were savvy in the ways of information, graphics, fundraising and grassroots organizing.

This case also represents a prime example of how third party negotiations can be used to find resolution with a country that does not share formal diplomatic ties with the U.S.  The gulf country of Oman led the negotiations for two years, eventually paying the combined sum of a million-and-a-half dollar “bail” for their release and providing a private plane to transport the three out of Iran. 

Released before Bauer and Fattal, Shourd worked beside the three families to mobilize the help of Venezuela’s late-president through actor Sean Penn. Hugo Chavez personally raised the case with Iranian President Ahmadinejad with positive results. Although Venezuela is by no means a U.S. ally, the sway of Hollywood worked its influence and opened doors that the U.S. diplomats could not. Ultimately it was the combined pressure of the governments of Venezuela, Iraq and Oman that led to the release of the hikers. 


In summer 2009, Shane Bauer, Joshua Fattal, and Sarah Shourd were hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan when they were lured into Iran by Iranian border guards. Accused of espionage and illegal entry, the three Americans ultimately found themselves in Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison, where they discovered that pooling their strength of will and relying on each other were the only ways they could survive.

Bauer and Fattal met while attending the University of California, Berkeley.  Sarah Shourd also attended UC Berkeley, but not at the same time as Fattal and Bauer.  After college, Fattal became co-director of an environmental education center.  He was able to travel to Switzerland, India, China, and South Africa as a fellow with International Honors Program’s “Health and Community” study abroad program.  Bauer became a freelance journalist writing for Democracy Now, Mother Jones, The Nation, and others.  Shourd became a writer, educator and anti-war activist. She and Bauer began dating and then moved to Damascus, Syria in 2009, where they both worked as journalists and lived in a Palestinian refugee camp. Shourd taught for the Iraqi Student Project, an organization that helped Iraqi refugees in Syria pursue higher education in the U.S. and Europe.

Case Report

In 2009 Fattal traveled to Damascus to visit Bauer and Shourd.  They traveled to the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, a popular tourist destination for foreigners and Middle Easterners alike, where no American has been killed or kidnapped in recent decades. The three decided to visit Ahmed Awa, a popular tourist site known for its green mountains and waterfalls. While hiking, the three saw a guard in the distance who waved them over to him. They were then detained by what they would later learn were Iranian border guards.  They were held for a year before being formally charged with illegal border crossing and espionage.

All three were jailed and psychologically tortured to Evin Prison, a prison notorious for housing activists and political dissidents.  They were held in solitary confinement for the first four months, after which Bauer and Fattal were placed in a cell together, while Shourd remained in solitary confinement were her mental and physical health continued to deteriorate.  Due to Shourd’s declining mental health, the prison guards eventually allowed her to see Fattal and Bauer for an average of half an hour a day.

The Swiss Ambassador Livia Leu Agosti, who represents US Interests in Iran, was not able to obtain a consular visit with Bauer, Fattal, or Shourd until a month after they were first detained. The three hikers were also denied access to their lawyer and only allowed one five minute phone call to their families, after six months of detention, and one visit from their mothers after eight months.

Many called for the unconditional release of Bauer, Fattal, and Shourd including United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Amnesty International, Boxer Muhammad Ali, Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky, Secretary Hilary Clinton, President Obama and many more.  Shourd was released after 410 days on “humanitarian grounds.” It was in fact her mother, Nora Shourd, who created tremendous media pressure for her daughter’s release by strategically exaggerating the health risks of a small lump Shourd has detected in her breast while in prison. The Iranian government, knowing full-well that Shourd’s condition was completely benign, used the cover of “health issues” as an excuse to release Shourd, thereby easing the mounting pressure against them without being perceived as bowing the pressure from the United States Government.

Upon her release, Shourd immediately assumed the role of lead spokesperson and champion fighting for the release of her now-fiancee Bauer and friend Fattal. The trial, after being postponed three times, took place on the second anniversary of their arrest.  They appeared before Judge Abolqasem Salvati, labeled the “hanging judge” for the frequent and brutal executions he dolled out to activists and oppositionists.  They were convicted of spying for the US Government and illegal entry and sentenced to eight years each.

“During their detention, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated the three hikers might be released in exchange for Iranians imprisoned in the United States.”

The hikers were caught in the middle of complicated nuclear relations between Iran and the United States. During their detention, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated the three hikers might be released in exchange for Iranians imprisoned in the United States. There was also a power struggle amongst factions inside Iran’s government. Two weeks after Fattal and Bauer were convicted during the Holy month of Ramadan observed by Muslims around the world, President Ahmadinejad announced Fattal and Bauer would be released “in a couple days” as a “humanitarian gesture” before his trip to New York to speak at the United Nations General Assembly. The power struggle between the Iranian President and Iran’s judiciary became evident when the judiciary immediately contradicted the president, stating it had exclusive authority to order their release, not the president. Fattal and Bauer were released in time for President Ahmadinejad’s speech, but the judiciary added a bail of $1 million, which was paid by Salem Ismaily, the special envoy of the Sultan Qaboose of Oman. Bauer and Fattal were released on September 21st, exactly a year and a week after Shourd’s release under similar circumstances.


Bauer and Shourd married on May 5, 2012 on the California coast. Fattal is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in International History at New York University and Bauer is an investigative journalist who, at the time of the writing, works for Mother Jones. Shourd is now an author, UC Berkeley Visiting Scholar, in-demand speaker and public advocate against the wide-spread use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, which has been condemned as an act of torture.  The Three co-authored an acclaimed memoir—A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran—published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2014.