Vigil marks 200 days of imprisonment in Iran for Berkeley hikers

Braving a steady downpour, friends and family of three Berkeley alums detained in Iran held a campus vigil Sunday to draw attention to the plight of their loved ones. After crossing over to the Iranian border while hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan on July 31, 2009, Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd, and Josh Fattal were taken into custody on suspicion of spying.

Learn about the hikers and efforts relating to their release on Free the Hikers. E-mail Tegra Fisk to be updated on fundraising events to help the hikers’ mothers visit their children in Iran.

Since then, the hikers have been held in Evin Prison in Tehran.

To mark their 200th day of custody — which actually passed a week earlier — 15 of the hikers’ friends and family created a “love altar” in the Eucalyptus Grove behind the Valley Life Sciences Building. Undeterred by the rain, they hoisted a five-foot heart made from willow branches in a symbolic trio of eucalyptus trees with intertwined roots. The group burned sage beneath the altar, which was festooned with paper cranes, messages to the hikers, prayer flags, and photos of Bauer, Shourd, and Fattal.

The hikers’ supporters have organized vigils since the first month of the trio’s capture, said Tegra Fisk, Fattal’s girlfriend. She described the hikers as “ecologically, internationally, and culturally minded people” with friends all over the world. The gatherings are a way to increase awareness of the hikers’ situation and as a means for the detainees’ community to “rejuvenate and renew” itself in the campaign for their freedom, she said.

“It helps to make something, to focus and get in touch with your feelings,” said Karen Sandys, Shourd’s aunt, who lives in Berkeley. “The bond strengthens when we come together.”

Vigils have been held in Mexico, Canada, Asia, and Europe, said Fisk, who organized two gatherings during her travels to India last fall. The Berkeley group wanted to create a place on campus to ground its efforts and prayers, she said. In an act of faith, several group members wrote postcards of support to their friends, though they can’t be certain the hikers will receive the mail.

Last July, Fattal, 27, went to visit Bauer and Shourd in Damascus, Syria. He had recently completed a stint as a teaching fellow with the International Honors Program, which enables college students to examine social, political, and environmental issues in several different countries during an academic year.

Bauer, 27, a peace-and-conflict-studies major with a double minor in journalism and Arabic, had been working in the Middle East as a photojournalist since the fall of 2008. Shourd, 31, lived with Bauer in Damascus, where she taught English and was learning Farsi. The two were on a weeklong vacation when they went hiking with Fattal.

Since the three were detained, Swiss diplomats have visited them twice and reported the hikers to be in good health. The last visit, however, was more than three and a half months ago on Oct. 29. Even the opportunity to hear the hikers’ voices via a phone call would help ease fears, said Sandys, adding that the families are “really tired and sad and frustrated.”

The Iranian government offered a ray of hope last week when it signaled that the hikers’ mothers may be permitted to visit their children. Fisk called the development “very heartening” and “the most exciting thing that’s happened in months and months for the families.”

The families have been working closely with the U.S. State Department, reported Sandys. More than 80 prominent activists and scholars from around the globe, including South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have signed a petition calling for the hikers’ release.

Sandys acknowledged the hikers’ incursion into Iran has mired them in a political situation. But, she insisted, “This is a humanitarian issue.”