Amnesty International and other organizations have harshly—and rightly—criticized Iran’s egregious human rights violations. However it is truly a cause for celebration when the Iranian authorities decide to take the high road on human rights, and these actions must be recognized and welcomed. In fact we are doubly grateful that in the past couple of days the Iranian government has released on bail both American hiker Sarah Shourd as well as prominent human rights attorney Shiva Nazar Ahari. These humanitarian gestures were performed at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, to mark the Muslim holiday ‘Eid al Fitr, a time when acts of clemency and mercy are traditionally performed. Iranian Authorities have also cited Ms Shourd’s health problems as grounds for the decision to grant her release.
Sarah Shourd had been arrested along with her friends Shane Michael Bauer and Joshua Fattal while they were hiking in the Iraq-Iran border area on 31 July 2009 and they had been detained since then in Evin Prison in Tehran. Iranian officials have alleged that the three U.S. citizens planned to carry out espionage. Amnesty International recognizes that all nations have a right to secure their borders and to ensure that foreign nationals with hostile intent do not threaten their citizens or perform criminal acts in their territory. However, the three U.S. hikers were held without charge or trial for over one year and not one shred of evidence has ever been produced against them. At the time Amnesty International released its 30 July 2010 statement calling for their release if they were not to be charged with a recognizable criminal offense, one entire year had gone by—more than enough time for the Iranian government to present any evidence it may have held against them.
In calling for their release after one year of detention without charge or trial, Amnesty International was holding the Iranian authorities to the exact same standards that it holds other governments. Amnesty International has consistently and vigorously condemned the U.S. government for its detention without charge of “terror” suspects at Guantanamo Bay, as well as the Egyptian government for detaining suspects indefinitely on national security grounds, and the Israeli government for its unwarranted use of “administrative detention” to hold Palestinians for periods of up to several years without charge or trial.
Furthermore, Amnesty International had been concerned about statements by senior Iranian leaders—including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in February 2010—suggesting that the three may have been detained in order to put pressure on the U.S. government to make diplomatic concessions, or possibly to use them as bargaining chips. Hostage taking is a human rights violation. The conditions under which the three were held were also causes for concern. Sarah Shourd was held in solitary confinement. In some cases solitary confinement would be justified, for instance if a female detainee were to be held in a prison full of only male prisoners. However since there are, unfortunately, large numbers of female political prisoners in Evin Prison, the use of solitary confinement was a form of ill-treatment and Ms Shourd has reportedly complained about the deleterious and stressful effects on her psyche. The three had also been granted only limited access to their families and their lawyer, even to the Swiss Embassy officials who represent U.S. interests in Iran.
Ms Shourd’s two companions still remain in Evin Prison. Now the chief prosecutor of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi has said that charges will be filed against all three and that an espionage trial would go forward. Growing numbers of other prisoners of conscience languish in Iran’s detention facilities; many of them are courageous human rights defenders such as lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, arrested on 4 September and held since then in solitary confinement in Evin Prison, and Behareh Hedayat, who was sentenced to nine years in prison for her peaceful activism on behalf of women’s and students’ rights. While we sincerely welcome the Iranian authorities’ decision to release Ms Shourd and Ms Ahari, we continue to campaign for the release of Ms Sotoudeh, Ms Hedayat, Mr. Bauer, Mr. Fattal and the countless other victims of human rights abuses in Iran.