WASHINGTON — It was 662 days, three hours and about 32 minutes since her son, Shane Bauer, had been detained in Iran when Cindy Hickey walked to a podium at the National Press Club to, once again, beg the government of Iran to let him and his friend Josh Fattal go.
Hickey is a fighter, but this bout has taken its toll on the Pine City, Minn., native. Sleepless nights, constant sickening worries and the continual tick tock of time. Waiting. Hoping. Fearing. Waiting. She’s done hunger strikes before — she’ll do them again, and for longer, if she needs to.
“Life has continued on around us while we remain frozen in time,” Hickey said. There’s a wedding to be had at some point between Shane and his fiancée, Sarah Shourd, who was once detained as well but was released on bail and is now back in the United States to wait and worry with everyone else. That’s on hold too.
Yet Tuesday morning came a glimmer of hope for Hickey, Bauer’s dad Allan Bauer of Shakopee, fiancée and former detainee Shourd, and the rest of their family and friends.
For standing behind them both literally and in spirit was a who’s who delegation of U.S. Muslim leaders, delivering what amounted to a spiritual call to the Islamic Republic of Iran to finally release the American hikers jailed in Tehran.
In a letter to Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khomeini, the group quoted Quranic verses that speak of heavenly rewards for those who pardon and said releasing Bauer and Fattal would “shine a truly powerful light on Islam.”
“We know that the compassions that led to the release of Sarah are the same compassions and mercies that will lead to the release of Shane and Josh,” Imam Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America, told a large crowd of reporters.
Seated just to the side of the podium was the most famous signer of that letter, the man the cameras crowded around and easily the most famous American Muslim in the world — Muhammad Ali.
Imprisoned in Iran
662 days, three hours and about 32 minutes before Hickey spoke, Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd were hiking a trail in Iraqi Kurdistan when they were spotted by Iranian authorities and arrested.
The trio and U.S. government have said they were taken from within Iraq, and if they strayed into Iran along an unmarked border, then it was entirely accidental. Iran says they were illegally crossing into the country, and are U.S. spies.
In a report on Iranian state TV Tuesday, a foreign ministry spokesman said it was a “joke” to describe them as hikers.
American authorities, as high up as President Obama, have openly denied those charges.
Tensions between Iran and the United States remain high. Iran was a charter member of President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” that the U.S. government strongly suspects is funding and supporting terrorist attacks and resistance to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States does not have an ambassador in Tehran, and instead has been working through Swiss intermediaries to try and secure Bauer and Fattal’s freedom.
“Josh and Shane have committed no crime,” said Josh’s mother, Laura Fattal. “We believe they are being punished simply because of their nationality.”
“We are not politicians,” agreed Alex Fattal, Josh’s brother, who was on Day 2 of his leg in the latest hunger fast. “We are three families, and we want our loved ones home.”
The two American hikers still detained have appeared in court already to face charges of espionage. A trial was supposed to begin earlier this month, but didn’t.
“We don’t have an indication either way” on what that means, Hickey said, adding that the trial was postponed without families knowing why it was halted, what that means or when it might restart.
“That’s part of what’s been so hard about this — we just don’t know.”
What ‘The Greatest’ sees in Shane and Josh
Ali walked out gingerly to a seat by the podium, his body beset by an advancing Parkinson’s Disease. He had to be assisted as he walked, wore dark sunglasses and never spoke once.
Yet the presence of the man called “The Greatest” was unmistakable and evidenced by the video cameras from ABC, CNN, Al Jazeera and other major networks that crowded round on the floor, lenses looking up, to get a shot of Ali and the hikers’ families in the same picture.
“When he was a young man, just like these two, Muhammad became a citizen of the world,” said his wife, Lonnie Ali, speaking for both herself and the man she simply called Muhammad. “There were no boundaries, there were no different cultures. Wherever he went, he melded into the environment, into the culture into the society that he was in.
“That is what helped shape him into being who he is today, a citizen of the world.”
When Muhammad Ali looks at Bauer and Fattal, Lonnie Ali said he sees a bit of himself in them. “These were two young men who, regardless of what international policy said, regardless of what politics said, that they wanted to experience the world and wanted to experience other cultures… other people, and to understand other societies, to understand them,” she said.
When Muhammad Ali went to Iran, he was celebrated as a sporting hero. His letters to Iranian authorities remind of his visits there before, and he’s offered in the past to travel there if necessary to secure Bauer and Fattal’s release, health permitting.
It is known there, as here, that Ali was once called Cassius Clay, that he rebelled against a U.S. government and refused to join the military and fight in Vietnam. His new Muslim faith forbade it, said the man who had converted and changed his name to Ali. While he was at one point convicted of draft evasion, he fought the charges and was eventually cleared by the U.S Supreme Court.
“The one thing I do know,” said Lonnie Ali, “Regardless of what’s going on between the Republic of Iran and the United States, the people of Iran are good people, they’re good people in their hearts, and I can assure you that that they love this man [Muhammad Ali], and that based on that compassion — the love of Allah, the love of Muhammad — that we ask for their release, for their compassion that they showed to Sarah, to show the same to Josh and to Shane.”
Hickey said the Alis are “very much touched by the situation.” When they saw each other Tuesday, Lonnie Ali hugged her and encouraged her.
And though there have been false dawns before, on the morning of day 662 of Bauer and Fattal’s detention, there was a renewed sense of optimism that maybe, just maybe, this latest appeal might finally work.
“This does give me great hope,” Hickey said.