IRANIAN TRIAL, MY IMPRISONMENT, & CALLS FOR RELEASE
“They are simply open-minded and adventurous young people who represent the best of America, and of the human spirit. They are teachers, artists, and advocates for social and environmental justice.”
-President Barack Obama
In 2007, I moved to Damascus, Syria, to study Arabic at Damascus University, teach ESL to refugees with the Iraqi Student Project, and start out as a journalist. I lived in Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, and taught ESL at the American School and English Literature at The International School Of Choueifat. On July 31, 2009, I was captured by Iranian border police while hiking around a popular tourist destination, Ahmad Awa, in Iraqi Kurdistan. I was on a weekend trip with my then-boyfriend Shane Bauer and our friend Josh Fattal—who was visiting form the states—from our home in Syria. At the time Northern Iraq Kurdistan was a popular tourist destination for adventurous travelers, and a notably safe region of the Middle East without hostility towards Americans. The three of us were ordered at gun-point across an unmarked border by Iranian forces and forced into a military vehicle. We were then driven to Evin Prison, in Tehran, where Shourd spend 410 days in solitary confinement in the political ward. After two months of interrogation, I was told by my captors that my case had become political and that my freedom depended upon the actions of the U.S. government. We had become political pawns, with the Iranian government ostensibly holding out for a concession from the United States in exchange for the release of me and my companions. Though I was accused of espionage by Iranian officials, no evidence was ever shown against me or my companions. My detention was incommunicado and illegal, and my conditions of solitary confinement are considered a form of cruel and unusual punishment, or psychological torture, under international law. It was six months before I was allowed a brief phone call with my mother was allowed to briefly visit me in Tehran on May 4, 2010.
Some of the world most extraordinary leaders advocated for our release, such as Demond Tutu, who said, "I urge the Iranian authorities not to deny them their freedom in order to express their discontent with the United States…Please allow them to go free and continue on the path of peace, harmony and understanding that they have chosen to pursue." Another was Noam Chomsky, who said, “These young people represent a segment of the U.S. population that is critical of U.S. policies, and often actively opposed to them. Hence their detention is particularly distressing to all of us who are dedicated to shifting U.S. policy to one of mutual respect rather than domination.”
On September 14, 2010, after 410 days in prison, the Iranian government promptly released me to the care of the Omani government on “humanitarian grounds,” which included the presence of a potentially cancerous lump in my breast and the fact that I was a woman and deemed “incapable of espionage.” Before being allowed to leave the country, I was officially indicted for the crimes of espionage and illegal entry, and Judge Salavati, known as the “hanging judge,” stated that I would one day return to Iran “to be tried.” The Omani government paid $500,000 in cash for my bail, and reunited me with my mother, Nora and uncle, Mike Sandys, in Muscat, Oman.
After my imprisonment I was at the center of negotiations between the US, Iraqi, Omani, and Venezuelan governments and played a crucial role in procuring the release of fellow prisoners Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal. I appeared on The Oprah Show; met with President Obama, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, President of Iraq Qubad Talabani, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon; worked closely with actor Sean Penn, as well as other leading progressives such as Muhammad Ali, Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Angela Davis, Cat Stevens, Boots Riley, Tom Morello. and the late Desmond Tutu and Howard Zinn.