Three UC Berkeley Graduates Detained in Iran


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UC Berkeley graduate Shane Bauer told a colleague on July 27 that he would travel to Kurdistan, a province in northern Iraq.

Bauer was no stranger to travel in the Middle East, a proficient speaker of Arabic and a freelance journalist in conflict zones ranging from Darfur to Baghdad.

"I'll just be there for a week-mostly I want to feel out the situation there and get some ideas for deeper stories," Bauer wrote in an e-mail to one of his publishers the day he left for the province. "Kurdistan is the big story in Iraq right now."

But while on a hike near the Iraqi resort town of Ahmed Awa just four days later, he and two companions-his girlfriend and a former housemate-were arrested and later charged with crossing the border into Iran illegally.

Those who know the detainees, UC Berkeley graduates Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal, said the border crossing must have been a mistake.

However, an Iraqi official is alleging that the detainees are C.I.A. agents who entered the country deliberately. The claims, which a leading scholar said would be used against the detainees to possibly force a public confession, are being investigated by Iranian officials.

Bauer's colleagues defended him against the allegations, saying he had no interest in Iran. He did not know the national language, Persian, and was not well versed in Iran's culture.

"He's a sophisticated and well seasoned traveler, and if a border guard told him not to cross a border, he wouldn't have done it," said Jerry Sanders, chair of peace and conflict studies, in which Bauer received his degree in 2007. "He's a smart guy."

Several friends also maintain the detainees' innocence amid allegations that have gained global attention.

"I'm terrified. I'm terrified for her," said Rebecca Fisher, a longtime friend of Shourd. "I have no idea what the Iranian authorities are going to do."

Friends Call Allegations Against Detainees 'Absurd'

Swiss diplomats are currently negotiating with Iran to determine the status of the detainees. However, no significant progress has been reported.

"We asked our Swiss partners who represent our interests in Iran to please pursue our inquiries to determine the status of the three missing Americans," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a Monday press conference.

Voice of Iraq, an Iraqi media outlet, reported that Colonel Anwar Haj Omar of the Halabja police force in northern Iraq had linked the three Americans to the Central Intelligence Agency, according to Press TV, Iran's national news agency.

"These three people were agents working with the C.I.A. and were arrested near the resort town of Ahmed Awa," Omar said in the agency's report.

Iranian officials have told national media that the case is "on its natural course," and that they are looking into whether the trio were, in fact, tourists.

The allegations have been refuted by friends and colleagues of the detainees.

"I knew Sarah since she was 14 years old," Fisher said. "She doesn't work with the CIA, she would never want to work with the CIA. That's completely absurd, they're just making that up."

Sandy Close, executive director of Pacific News Service-the parent company of news organization New American Media that received Bauer's work-said Bauer told her in his July 27 e-mail that he was traveling to Kurdistan to cover elections in the region. She said the e-mail showed no indication that Bauer intended to cross the border.

"I can now use this e-mail to corroborate that he was going to Iraqi Kurdistan to continue his coverage of the Arab world," she said.

However, a recent report from Press TV cited an Iraqi tea-shop owner as saying that the trio had visited him the evening they were detained.

Shourd allegedly told the owner that the group wanted to go to Iran, according to the press agency.

Media Reports "Spun," Says Scholar

UCLA Iranian Studies Director Hossein Ziai said the media reports coming out of the region are heavily skewed and often untrue.

"They're anything but news ... I call them rags, where things are spun and a lot of them lie," he said. "Nobody believes what is said in these sources."

Ziai said he was frightened by the accusations that the detainees are C.I.A. agents because the claims could be used in "show trials" on Iranian national television. In these trials, defendants confess to the accusations against them and say they were trying to subvert the government, he said.

The three could also be falsely accused of trying to contribute to ongoing political turmoil in Iran, Ziai said. Tensions have flared since the country's contentious presidential elections results in June.

Ziai cited as a precedent the recent case of Haleh Esfandiari-the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C.-who was detained in 2007 while in Iran helping her ailing mother.

Esfandiari was held for almost five months before issuing a forced public confession that she intended to support a revolution in the country, Ziai said. Ultimately she was released unharmed.

When asked what Iranian authorities meant by saying that the case was on its "natural course," Ziai said: "This means that they're going to bring them to Tehran (and) put them in this infamous Evin Prison," where Esfandiari and others were detained.

Still, he said he expected that the detainees would likely not be harmed.

But Ziai said that if U.S. citizens do not urge public policy makers to come out against the detention, the trio may never return home.

"If we forget about them they may rot," he said, "forever."

Tomer Ovadia of the Daily Californian contributed to this report.


Zach A. Williams is the news editor. Contact him at [email protected]

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