During the nearly 14 months Sarah Shourd spent in an Iranian prison cell, she went on a hunger strike four times. It was the only way she had to protest her prolonged detention.
On Friday, she fasted again, this time in solidarity with the two fellow UC Berkeley graduates left behind in Tehran’s Evin Prison when she was freed in September on $500,000 bail: her fiance, Shane Bauer, and their friend Joshua Fattal.
“They have committed no crime,” Shourd said between media appearances in Los Angeles to promote their cause. “They have done nothing wrong, and they don’t deserve to be there a minute longer than I was.”
Shourd and Bauer had been living in Damascus, Syria, for a year when Fattal came to visit them in July 2009. Shourd, 32, was teaching English to Iraqi and Palestinian refugees and Bauer, 28, was working as a photojournalist.
She said the three friends were on a hiking trip in the scenic, semi-autonomous and relatively peaceful Kurdish region of northern Iraq when they were accused of illegally crossing into Iran.
“We had no idea we were anywhere near Iran,” Shourd said Friday. “There was absolutely no indication of any kind of border.”
She and the men’s families thought the nightmare was finally coming to an end when Bauer and Fattal had their first official court hearing on Feb. 6 and pleaded not guilty to charges that included trespassing and espionage. But their next court session, scheduled for May 11, was delayed without explanation and no new trial date has been announced.
“We were devastated,” Shourd said. “I knew in my heart that Shane and Josh were going to be going on hunger strike when they didn’t go to court, and I expressed that to their families.”
The mothers of Bauer and Fattal, Cindy Hickey and Laura Fattal, announced May 19 that they were embarking on a “rolling hunger strike” in solidarity with their sons. Friends and supporters were invited to take up the relay and fast for a day. By Friday, more than 270 people had signed up through Facebook.
Journalist Roxana Saberi, who spent more than three months in Iranian custody, took part Thursday. Nazanin Boniadi, a British Iranian actress and spokeswoman for Amnesty International USA, fasted Friday with Shourd, who was participating for the second time. And on Saturday, Fattal’s entire family, including his 85-year-old grandmother, planned to join in to mark his 29th birthday.
“We hope that news of the hunger strike will get to Shane and Josh and make them feel less alone,” Shourd said.
She said she writes to them every day but does not know if they receive all her letters. Bauer, a Minnesota native, and Fattal, an environmentalist from Pennsylvania, have been allowed three brief telephone calls with their families since their arrest.
Shourd was in a meeting when they last called May 22, but received a voice message from Bauer, which she treasures. The men told their mothers that they had been on hunger strike for 17 days earlier this year because prison authorities had stopped bringing them mail from their families.
“The longest I ever went on hunger strike was five days, and it was difficult to even walk across the room,” Shourd said. “Your heart is pounding in your chest; just when you stand up you get short of breath.”
The men’s lawyer, Masoud Shafii, has not been permitted to meet with his clients since the February hearing and has threatened to resign from the case. But Shourd said she and the families begged him to stay on.
She also said she has decided not to return to Iran for the trial.
“There’s a part of me that wanted to go to court and stand with Shane and Josh to defend our innocence,” Shourd said. But she said that she is being treated for post-traumatic stress and that doctors advised against the trip.
She remains hopeful that she will soon be reunited with her fiance and friend, noting that Iranian authorities informed the trio as early as December 2009 that the investigation was complete and that they would be going home after a trial.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was similarly encouraging when she met him in New York after her release.
“He told me that he hoped that Shane and I would be married very soon, that he hoped we would have many children,” she said. “I don’t believe for a second that the Iranian authorities actually believe that Shane and Josh are a threat to Iran.... Their detention has nothing to do with their actions and everything to do with the animosity between the U.S. and Iran.”