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'A world of lies and false hope'

Freed American hikers describe their time in an Iranian prison and have sharp words for Tehran.

September 26, 2011|Tina Susman

NEW YORK — In a no-holds-barred statement, two Americans who spent 781 days in an Iranian prison on spying charges called themselves hostages of sour U.S.-Iranian relations and described the screams of prisoners being beaten, the mental manipulation of their jailers, and how they lived in "a world of lies and false hope" until their sudden release last week.

Gone was the diplomacy and the words of gratitude to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that marked the statements from their fellow prisoner Sarah Shourd one year ago, when she was freed after 410 days in prison ahead of companions Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal.

This time, with all three back on U.S. soil and nobody left as possible bargaining chips, the trio condemned the Iranians but also criticized U.S. practices -- such as secret CIA prisons -- that they said their jailers would cite if they complained about conditions in Tehran.

Shourd also expressed some regret about the trio's decision to go hiking in Kurdistan in northern Iraq -- a country at war -- near its virtually unmarked border with Iran in July 2009. "We regret we didn't know more about that area," she said when asked whether in retrospect the three should have done things differently.

In their first public statements after returning to the United States on Sunday, Bauer and Fattal said they had no idea whether they crossed the border during their hike, as Iranian officials claimed.

"Even if we did enter Iran, that has never been the reason the Iranian authorities kept us in prison for so long," Bauer said. "The only explanation for our prolonged detention is the 32 years of mutual hostility between America and Iran."

Fattal and Bauer, both 29, appeared at a Manhattan hotel a few hours after landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport, ending a diplomatic wrangle that reflected the grim state of U.S.-Iranian relations -- as well as Ahmadinejad's domestic rifts with critics who accuse him of abusing his powers.

In a move aimed at burnishing his image, Ahmadinejad had vowed to release Bauer and Fattal before coming to New York for the Sept. 19-23 United Nations General Assembly meeting. Iranian judges rejected that plan at the last minute, saying Ahmadinejad had no right to free prisoners unilaterally. The men had been convicted of spying and illegal entry this year and sentenced to eight years in prison. They finally went free Wednesday after their defense attorney secured judicial approval for the bail -- $500,000 each.

"We applaud the Iranian authorities for finally making the right decision regarding our case," said Fattal, who stood alongside Bauer and Shourd -- who are engaged -- at the news conference. "But we want to be clear: They do not deserve undue credit for ending what they had no right and no justification to start in the first place."

Fattal said he and Bauer were in isolation for most of their time in prison and allowed only a total of 15 minutes of phone calls with their families.

"Many times, too many times, we heard the screams of other prisoners being beaten," Fattal said. Jailers played mind-games to wear them down, Fattal said, including telling them that their relatives were not writing them letters.

In fact, Fattal's mother, Laura Fattal, said later that she wrote her son 781 letters -- one each day he was held.

Bauer said one irony of their imprisonment was that the three have long opposed U.S. policies toward Iran. He did not go into details, and neither he nor Fattal took questions. But for years the United States has accused Iran of seeking to build nuclear weapons, and of supplying weapons used by Shiite militias against U.S. and other forces in Iraq. Iran denies the allegations.

When they complained about conditions in Tehran's Evin Prison, Bauer said, their jailers would "immediately remind us of comparable conditions at Guantanamo Bay. They would remind us of CIA prisons in other parts of the world."

Whatever the U.S. has done does not excuse other governments from doing the same, said Bauer, adding that he was not inclined to forgive Iran.

"How can we forgive the Iranian government when it continues to imprison so many other innocent people and prisoners of conscience?" he said.

They learned of their imminent release Wednesday after their daily exercise break in an open-air room of the prison.

"On any other day we would have been blindfolded and led down the hallway to our 8-foot-by-13-foot cell," Fattal said. "But on that day, the guards took us downstairs. They fingerprinted us and gave us street clothes. They did not tell us where we were going."

They were taken to another part of the prison, he said, where an official from the Persian Gulf state of Oman said, "Let's go home." The pair's defense attorney said Oman, a U.S. ally, paid the bail.

Since her release last year, Shourd has lived in Oakland. Bauer, a freelance journalist, grew up in Onamia, Minn., and Fattal, an environmental activist, is from Elkins Park, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb.

Shourd, 33, and Bauer, who were dating before the hiking trip, became engaged during their imprisonment.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

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