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On Hiking, Biking and Freedom Needlessly Denied

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Adapted from an article first published in Newsweek the week of November 14, 2009.

There are certain crises that always loom as possibilities: a chronic illness in the family, strife in a relationship, a car accident. To have a brother detained in Iran, with no way to contact him and little information about his legal status or the conditions in which he's held, is not one of them. Never would I have imagined putting my Ph.D. research on hold to lobby for my brother's release from Evin Prison; I didn't expect to move back to my parents' house at the age of 30, either.

But that's what happened after I learned on July 31 that Iranian authorities had detained Josh and his two friends Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, where they had been hiking. Soon, TV trucks were parked in front of the house, and reporters were asking questions to which we didn't have the answers. Nearly seven months later we still don't. All we know is that they were near the Ahmed Awa waterfall, an area that's become popular with Western tourists when they were picked up by Iranian border guards.

The last time I saw Josh was 5 a.m. on July 5. He had come to visit me in Stockholm after his teaching responsibilities for the International Honors Program had ended. He was traveling to Damascus, where Shane and Sarah were living, before the three of them headed to Iraqi Kurdistan. The night before he left, I gave him a big hug and told him, "You may be my little brother, but I look up to you."

I miss Josh terribly -- but this isn't the first time I've waited for him to come home. Josh is an environmentalist. In 2001 he spurned my parents' offer of a frequent-flier ticket to bike 3,000 miles home to Philadelphia from Seattle. Josh was free to sleep beneath the stars then. He pedaled through Glacier National Park in Montana, the Lake Country of Minnesota, and the hills of upstate New York. Our mom could send care packages and know he received them; we could pick up the phone and hear his voice whenever we felt like it. We waited 42 days for him, knowing that, with each one, he got closer. Then, finally, he pulled up into the driveway -- his bike seat on crooked, his handlebars loose -- and we hardly let him dismount before we wrapped our arms around him. Now my family, along with Shane's and Sarah's, waits for the day when we can hug our loved ones once again.

UPDATE: As of 2/22/2010:

47 Days since family members have applied for visas without news of their status

57 Days since the Hikers' lawyer, Masoud Shafii, has not been able to gain access to them or their file

116 Days since the last consular visit by Swiss diplomats (there have only been two)

206 Days in incommunicado detention

Last week we were encouraged by statements by Mohammad Javad Larijani, the secretary general of Iran's High Council for Human Rights (and like Josh, Shane and Sarah a former University of California Berkeley student) in which he said that it is quite possible that Josh, Shane and Sarah entered Iran by accident, which is what we as families have been saying from the beginning. Mr. Larijani also said that the families' visa request was being viewed favorably, which raises our hope that Josh, Shane and Sarah will be permitted direct contact with us, a right which they have so far been denied. I hope that Mr. Larijani's comments signal an end to our living nightmare. Our hopes have been raised on previous occasions and it has been difficult dealing with the disappointment that our loved ones' detention has protracted despite positive comments by Iranian officials. It would be terrible if our hopes were to be dashed again.

For more information, including ways you can help Free the Hikers, please visit: Freethehikers.org.

Alex Fattal is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Harvard University.