I recently spent two weeks detained by Syrian authorities in a secret police prison, accused of being a CIA agent or journalist. In fact I was merely an American student learning Arabic at the University of Damascus. Although this ordeal was life-changing, at least I was released, unlike many innocent men and women still being held captive by regimes across the region. Americans Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal are among those left wondering when, if ever, they will see their loved ones again.
They have spent 634 days and counting in Evin prison in Tehran without any indication of release. They have not been given the right to publicly defend themselves, so today I am advocating on their behalf. Given the many overlaps between our lives, I hope that Iranian officials will reach the same conclusion that Syrian authorizes did about me: they are innocent and therefore must be released.
Needless to say, these two men, along with their hiking partner Sarah Shourd (Shane's fiancée), have been on my mind recently. About nine days into my incarceration, I became fairly certain that my passport was going to spare me the severe physical abuse that other prisoners endured. That's when fear really started to set in. What if I was turned into an innocent political token, like those three hikers?
It was not until my release that I realized how deep my connection to these three strangers, runs. Sarah, Shane and I are all students of the Arabic language and therefore, by default, Arab culture. We all share a deep passion for the region, which Sarah has so eloquently been trying to express while at the same time fighting tirelessly for the release of her loved ones.
Our stories overlap geographically as well. Throughout our various travels around the Middle East, Sarah, Shane and I have all landed in Yemen, one of my favorite countries, as well as Syria, the last Arab stop on our respective journeys. We nearly overlapped a third time as I had been planning a trip to Kurdistan, where Shane, Sarah and Josh were arrested.
I also feel a strong sense of connection to Josh, although I have never met him and he sits thousands of miles away. I recently learned that Josh and I share a passion for the environment after reading a glowing testimony of innocence written by his former employer, Jeremy Roth. My interest in sustainability issues is what drew me to the Middle East for the first time in the summer of 2009. That's when I got the opportunity to research the Saudi Arabian environmental movement for the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency. We also share the travel bug. I am envious of his adventures, which have taken him across Europe, Asia, New Zealand, and now the Middle East. Regrettably, he is being forced to put his passions on hold indefinitely.
Given this multitude of similarities between our stories, why did Syria deem me harmless in a matter of weeks, while Iran continues to keep two equally innocent men from continuing with their lives? To add to this farce, Josh was only passing through the Middle East and has no knowledge of either Arabic or Farsi, a seemingly necessary skill if one were to be even a remote threat. Then, last September, in a move that was greatly appreciated but illogical, they released Sarah and not Shane and Josh, despite the fact that all three have exemplary records as social justice activists, educators, journalists and were "arrested" under the same circumstances.
Although no one can fully understand why Shane and Josh are still in prison, it is long past time for them to come home. I would like to call on Ayatollah Khameni, President Ahmadinejad and the Islamic Republic of Iran as a whole to release Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer in accordance with the Islamic principles of justice, for the sake of American-Iranian relations, and in recognition of all that is still good in this world.