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Families ask Iranian leader to bring detained hikers home

Ahead of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's address to the U.N. Wednesday, relatives launch a media effort pleading for the release of three UC Berkeley graduates arrested nearly two months ago.

September 23, 2009|Paloma Esquivel

On the eve of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to the United Nations, the families of three young UC Berkeley graduates detained in that country while hiking pleaded for their release.

"This is not a political situation at all, it's totally humanitarian," Patrick Sandys, cousin of detainee Sarah Shourd, said Tuesday. "We don't want it to get mired in the already difficult political situation between the U.S. and Iran. We just want our family members home."

Shourd, 31; Shane Bauer, 27; and Joshua Fattal, 27, have been in Iranian custody since they allegedly crossed into the country July 31 while hiking through a mountainous area of Iraq's northern Kurdistan region. Since then, family members said, they have had no contact with their loves ones.

Speaking from her Oakland home, Shourd's mother, Nora, said she hoped Ahmadinejad would bring the trio with him to New York City, where he is scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly today.

In an interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday, the Iranian leader said in New York that he would ask the judiciary to treat the case with what he called "maximum lenience." However, he did say the Americans broke the law.

Late last week, the mothers of the three detainees wrote a letter to Ahmadinejad, asking him to bring their children to New York. Soon after, the Iranian president told NBC News that he sympathized with the families but that the hikers need to be punished.

Iranian officials have said the three were arrested for entering Iran without visas. At least one official has accused them of spying.

Initially, family members tried to maintain a low profile while they gathered information. But more than 50 days after the arrests, they know next to nothing about where the three are being held or what charges they might face, Sandys said.

State Department officials said they have unsuccessfully pressed Iranian officials through the Swiss -- who represent U.S. interests in Iran -- for access to the group.

Now, family members are hoping to draw attention to the story by talking to the media and holding public events.

"Essentially, we'd like Ahmadinejad to see it, to sympathize or empathize, given that he's a father himself, and hopefully release our kids as a very wonderful humanitarian gesture," said Sandys, who lives in Laguna Beach.

"It's extremely difficult for all the families," said Alex Fattal, Joshua's brother. "It's been seven weeks. We haven't had any word. . . . We want them back."

Joshua Fattal graduated in 2004 with a bachelor of science degree in environmental economics and policy. He had embarked on a year of travel in which he visited several countries before heading to Damascus to visit Bauer and Shourd, his brother said.

Bauer graduated in 2007 with a degree in peace and conflict studies. He is a freelance journalist and photographer.

Shourd, who graduated in 2003 with a bachelor's degree in English, was an English tutor in Northern California for many years, her mother said. She moved to Damascus about a year ago, where she lived with Bauer, and was teaching English and learning Arabic when the three headed to Iraq for a weeklong vacation. Shourd was raised mostly in Los Angeles but spent much of her life traveling the globe, including to Guatemala, Mexico, Ethiopia and Yemen, said Nora Shourd.

"Sarah and Shane are big outdoors people," she said. "Hiking trips, outdoors stuff -- we've been doing that since she was a little girl."

The families plan to hold a candlelight vigil Sept. 30, which would mark two months since the arrest. But Nora Shourd said she's hopeful the situation will be resolved before then.

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paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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