FREE THE HIKERS
After her release, Shourd was at the center of the Free the Hikers media campaign and engaged in behind-the-scenes negotiations on behalf of her fiancé Shane Bauer and friend Josh Fattal, who remained in prison. Her first media appearance was on Oprah, where she publicly challenged Iran’s President Ahmadinejad to meet her in person and present evidence against her companions. President Ahmadinejad agreed to meeting a few days later, during which he reassured Shourd that her companions would be freed. Shourd subsequently met with President Barak Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Undersecretary Bill Burns, National Security Council Advisor Dennis Ross, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, President Talabani of Iraq, US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu, and many other US and international officials in an attempt to convince various parties to increase the pressure on Iran to release her friends.
Frustrated by what little the Obama administration was willing to do on their behalf, Shourd enlisted actor Sean Penn to reach out to Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez. Chavez agreed to contact President Ahmadinejad and ask for the two men to be released as a personal favor, and the Iranian president agreed to do what he could. Other public advocates for their freedom included former boxer Muhammad Ali, author and intellectual Noam Chomsky, American-Pakistani author Dr. Akmar Ahmed, entertainer Cat Stevens, and many others. Bauer and Fattal were tried in Iranian court and sentenced to eight years in prison but were released in September 2011, after time served of over two years, to the care of the Omani government and subsequently returned to the US.
The Associated Press reported that a series of secret talks took place in 2009–2011 between high-level US and Iranian officials on Omani soil, facilitated and hosted by the Sultan of Oman. These talks were initiated under the pretense of negotiating the release of Shourd, Bauer, and Fattal but eventually paved the way for the negotiations that led to the Obama administration’s historic Iran Nuclear Deal. According to these reports, it was the Omani-led negotiations to free the three prisoners that generated sufficient trust between nations and put the sultan in a position to help end the US-Iran stalemate. “Ironically,” said the AP report, “efforts to win the release of the three American hikers turned out to be instrumental in making the clandestine diplomacy possible.”
HUMAN RIGHTS IN IRAN
I have been a vocal advocate in support of Obama’s Iran Nuclear Deal, stating that under this new deal Iran would have less incentive to hold Americans as hostages and both countries would benefit from direct talks and a warming of relations. I continue to weigh in on human rights issues in Iran, including calling for the release of Iranian political prisoners and/or American hostages such as Zahra Bahrami, Kaila Mueller, Jason Rezaian, and Nasrin Sotoudeh.
ENDING SOLITARY CONFINEMENT & MASS INCARCERATION
I’m an internationally known advocate against the overuse of solitary confinement in prisons.
According to watchdog organization Solitary Watch, an estimated 80,000 incarcerated men, women, and children are held in some form of isolated confinement on any given day in the United States. In the years after her imprisonment, Shourd used her notoriety to shine a spotlight on the egregious and widespread use of solitary confinement in US prisons, publishing an op-ed in the New York Times and appearing on numerous other platforms.
Her writing, advocacy, and lectures across the US and abroad on the subject of solitary confinement brought her work to the attention of UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E. Méndez, who has stated that “indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 days should be subject to an absolute prohibition.” She has also consulted with the California Department of Corrections, San Francisco’s District Attorney, and various organizations on the practice of (and alternatives to) solitary confinement in US prisons.
- 2015: PBS, The Brain with David Eagleman, “The Effects of Solitary Confinement”
- 2013: Aljazeera, interview, “Former Political Prisoner Defends Manning”
- 2013: Huffington Post, “Former Detained U.S. Hiker Sarah Shourd Speaks Out Against Immigration Detention."
- I worked in 2016 with Senator Mark Leno to pass the Stop the Torture of Children Act, a law that ended the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in detention in California, limiting the amount of time juveniles can be held in isolation to three hours.
- A 2015 Daily Beast article I co-authored with Dave Maas from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) led to Facebook changing its policy on removing prisoners’ pages upon a warden’s request. Facebook now has an independent process that investigates whether the incarcerated individual has violated its policy. NPR’s All Things Considered did a piece on this investigation.
“Sarah Shourd plays a key role in the movement to abolish solitary confinement. She is a dynamic and inspiring speaker, she is indefatigable in organizing social actions, and her writings and her play, The BOX, serve to make the inhabitants of solitary cells very accessible and human to readers and audiences.”
–Terry A. Kupers, MD, psychiatrist and author of Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars and Solitary: The Inside Story of Supermax Isolation