U.S. Hikers Leave Iran Prison Fitter and With Sean Penn to Thank

Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal emerged from 781 days in a 104-square-foot Iranian prison cell leaner, fitter and with Hollywood actor Sean Penn and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez among those to thank for their release.

Bauer and Fattal returned home yesterday after the Gulf sultanate of Oman paid a $1 million bail. Both their mothers were present and took questions from reporters after the two freed U.S. citizens read aloud a statement in New York, listing celebrities and heads of state who “made a difference” in securing their freedom.

Cindy Hicky spoke of her son Shane’s “ingenuity” behind bars and how the men stayed fit by using water bottles as exercise weights and tearing strips from their blindfolds to use as laces for their sneakers. Detained in Tehran’s Evin prison on charges of espionage and illegal entry, the pair, after a stint in solitary confinement, were put in the same cell and allowed short bursts of daily exercise.

“They’re both thinner than when we left them,” Hicky said. “Their hair is nicely cut. They had slight gray under their eyes because they did not have much sunshine. No vitamin D.”

Film director and actor Penn flew to Venezuela to raise the plight of the hikers with Chavez, an ally of the Iranian government who lent his support, according to a person close to the family who declined to be named. Penn, an ardent critic of former U.S. President George W. Bush, maintains contacts with the regimes in Cuba and Venezuela.

Unmarked Border

The question of how the two 29-year-olds and Bauer’s fiance Sarah Shourd stumbled across the border into Iran during a hike in Iraq near the mountainous border between the two countries on July 31, 2009, remains unanswered. Asked whether, with hindsight, their decision to explore a waterfall in Iraq’s Kurdish region without a proper map was reckless, the three hikers were mostly unrepentant.

“This was never about crossing the unmarked border,” Shane Bauer told reporters in a New York hotel. “We were held because of our nationality. We do not know if we crossed the border. We will probably never know.”

Shourd, who was released on a $500,000 bail a year ago, said that the three of them “regret we didn’t know more about that area.”

Bauer and Fattal were given their freedom at the same time Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, where he assailed U.S. policy for triggering wars and causing the world’s economic distress.

‘Ironic’ Punishment

Shourd, who became engaged to Bauer while both were in captivity, had lived with him in Syria’s capital, Damascus, where she learned Arabic and taught English. Fattal is an environmentalist who was visiting Damascus before the three headed to Iraq.

Shourd described their imprisonment as “ironic” given that the three Americans had a “long record” as critics of their own country’s foreign policy, particularly the treatment of inmates at the U.S. detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“It was very ironic that when I was in the Iranian prison, complaining about being alone,” she said. “The guards would bring up Guantanamo. We would say: ‘We know. We understand but two wrongs don’t make a right.’”

To contact the reporters on this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson in New York at fjackson@bloomberg.net;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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