Reporting from Tehran and Beirut — Three Americans jailed in Iran since allegedly straying into the country during a hiking expedition 10 months ago embraced their mothers Thursday in an emotional reunion.
The mothers of Sarah Shourd, 31, Shane Bauer, 27, and Joshua Fattal, 27, arrived in Tehran on Wednesday night after they were granted visas to visit their children, who had been accused at various points of trespassing and espionage.
"This gesture shows that Iran distinguishes between American people and the American government," said Fattal, during the reunion, in a room on the 15th floor of northern Tehran's Esteghlal Hotel in the presence of TV cameras and journalists.
The prisoners' families said the freelance journalists and students were on a hiking trip in the scenic mountains of Iraq's Kurdistan region when they might have strayed onto Iranian soil.
On Thursday, Bauer described their arrest as "a twist of fate."
Iran's English-language Press TV showed Nora Shourd, Laura Fattal and Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey, weeping and clutching flowers as they locked their arms around their children.
The three prisoners were allowed to temporarily leave Tehran's Evin Prison, where they are under constant supervision and subject to numerous interrogations.
At the hotel, they were dressed in bluejeans and T-shirts, and appeared healthy. TV images showed them eating kabobs and fries with their families. After they embraced their mothers, they painted a rosy picture inside Evin, home to some of the country's most famous dissidents as well as common criminals.
Sarah Shourd told reporters they spent their days studying and doing sports. They are also allowed to spend an hour together each day in the prison courtyard. "We sing," she said. "We exercise. I am learning Arabic. I live in Syria. I wanted to be a bridge between East and West."
It wasn't immediately clear whether the prisoners were speaking freely of their experiences in Evin.
The mothers repeatedly praised Iran's decision to allow the visit and said they had asked for their children to be freed. "We were treated very well, and we want to come back to Iran under different conditions," Hickey said.
"This gesture by the foreign minister of Iran, [Manouchehr] Mottaki, has been wonderful," said Laura Fattal. "This is a humanitarian gesture, and the use of the word 'humanitarian' has been so important to us."
"We know our children need to come home," she added, "and we want them to come home."
But prospects for the three prisoners remained unclear. Their Iranian lawyer told the Times that although they were legally entitled to visit with their relatives, they have been denied their right to a speedy resolution of their case.
"The jail officials say that more interrogations are to be done," said Masoud Shafii, the attorney. "But from my view, for more than four months it has not legally justifiable to keep on with the interrogations."
He added, "Politically everything is possible, and they may be released any time and any day."
The visit was organized in part by the Swiss Embassy, which represents United States' interests in Iran in the absence of formal relations between Tehran and Washington.
Hopes for improved ties between the two countries diminished after Iran blamed the U.S. for the unrest that followed its disputed presidential elections last year and when the confrontation over Iran's nuclear program flared again.
Iran released jailed French researcher Clotilde Reiss after France denied a U.S. extradition order for an alleged Iranian arms smuggler. Days after Reiss arrived in Paris, France's Interior Ministry signed a decision allowing a paroled Iranian assassin to head home to Tehran, where he was welcomed by Iranian officials as a hero.
Iranian Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi on Wednesday reiterated the spying allegations and suggested a link between the three Americans and those Iranians held in the U.S, including several said to have defected.
"We have asked the Americans to reciprocate and treat well the innocent Iranian individuals that the U.S. has abducted," he said.
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Daragahi from Beirut.