Twenty-one months ago almost to the day, three idealistic young Americans were enjoying a summer vacation hike in the safe and hospitable region of Iraqi Kurdistan when they wandered close to or across an unmarked mountain border and into the hands of Iranian forces. It is hard for any of us to appreciate the torment these individuals -- Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd -- and their families have suffered since that fateful day. It is harder still to fathom what Iran expects to gain by continuing to hold the two men in the group captive, with almost no contact with their families, and by putting them on trial on May 11 on the unfounded charge of espionage. Sarah, who is Shane's fiancé, was freed on humanitarian grounds last September yet the judiciary has summoned her back for the trial even though a senior Iranian official, Mohammad Javad Larijani, has said publicly that she is incapable of spying.
Sarah's release after 410 days of solitary confinement was the right thing to do. Iran must do the right thing again by allowing her companions to rejoin their families. Shane and Josh have already been detained for far longer than the 444 days that 52 American citizens spent as hostages in Tehran when the U.S. embassy was stormed following the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979. If Iran's intention in holding Shane and Josh is to show that it can still thumb its nose at America by depriving its citizens of their freedom, it has surely proven the point. And, if the intention is to engineer some sort of prisoner swap, there is no indication that the U.S. government is willing to play ball, given the broader strategic considerations at play in the tense U.S.-Iranian relationship.
As the president of a country in Southeast Asia that is about the size of Connecticut, I may appear to be an unlikely advocate for the so-called hikers. Timor-Leste is a long way from Iran and the United States, with limited means to exert pressure on them to resolve this very human tragedy born from their geopolitical rivalry. So how does this case concern me? As a Catholic, I believe in God's mercy and love and know that the values I hold dear are shared by my fellow human beings who worship Allah through Islam.
In getting to know something about Sarah -- and through her about Shane and Josh -- I also recognize in their lives and actions the same thirst for truth and justice that inspired the formerly oppressed people of my nation to wrest their independence from Indonesia. Shane, a journalist, Josh, an environmentalist, and Sarah, a teacher-activist, have a history of involvement in causes in support of legitimate independence movements and the downtrodden. Their openness to the world represents the best of a generation that today is exposed more to the glorious diversity of our human family and its cultures and beliefs than at any time. Indeed, the cruelest irony of their situation is that they have been subjected to such unwarranted treatment simply because they are Americans, yet they have been on the front lines of protest against many of the U.S. policies that Iran and other nations at odds with America so vehemently condemn.
Shane, Josh and Sarah may have been careless to go hiking in an area they knew little about. But they are not spies. Their mere idealism makes that crystal clear. Because Iran surely knows this to be the case, it now appears to need a graceful way out of the corner it finds itself in. A humanitarian release for Mother's Day on May 8, or a quick trial on May 11 that results in an acquittal or sentencing to time served for illegal entry offers Iran just such an opportunity. I and many others around the world who have appealed publicly and privately to Iran to release Shane and Josh fervently hope that the authorities will grasp this opportunity to show that they believe in justice, compassion and the rule of law and care about Iran's image. It is, after all, the right thing to do.
President Ramos-Horta shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo for their work towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in the former East Timor.
Follow José Ramos-Horta on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JoseRamosHorta