US Hikers Were Seized in Iraq
Since their arrest last July by Iranian forces near the Iraq border, three Americans—Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd—have been at the center of a high-stakes diplomatic struggle between Tehran and Washington. Iranian authorities have repeatedly accused the three of entering Iran to conduct espionage.
Meanwhile, friends and family of the three, along with the State Department, the Committee to Protect Journalists and this magazine [Bauer has written for The Nation; see "Iraq's New Death Squad," June 22, 2009], have rejected the spying charge and suggested that the Americans accidentally crossed the border while on a recreational hike. Despite a well-publicized visit by the detainees' mothers in May, Iran has released little information about the circumstances of their arrest or the status of their case.
Now a five-month investigation by The Nation and the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute has located two witnesses to the arrest who claim that Bauer, Fattal and Shourd were on Iraqi territory when they were arrested—not in Iran, as Iranian officials have asserted. Two additional sources report that the Revolutionary Guards officer who likely ordered their detention has since been arrested on charges of smuggling, kidnapping and murder.
The witnesses are residents of a Kurdish village in Iraq called Zalem, which lies a few miles from the Iran border; they declined to be identified, fearing retaliation from Iranian forces, who have been known to conduct missions across the border. The witnesses separately reported noticing the three Americans as they hiked up a mountain in the scenic Khormal region, which straddles the border. Part of the mountain lies in Iraq and part in Iran, but except for a few watchtowers and occasional signposts, the border here is largely unmarked, although local residents are familiar with its boundaries.
The witnesses, who followed the Western-looking hikers out of curiosity, say that around 2 pm on July 31, as the hikers descended the mountain, uniformed guards from NAJA, Iran's national police force, waved the hikers toward the Iranian side using "threatening" and "menacing" gestures. When their calls were ignored, one officer fired a round into the air. As the hikers continued to hesitate, the guards walked a few yards into Iraqi territory, where they lack jurisdiction, and apprehended them.
These witness accounts corroborate a statement Bauer made on May 20 during a televised reunion at a Tehran hotel between the hikers and their mothers. As the New York Times reported, Bauer "denied that they had walked into Iran, as they were accused of doing, before stopping himself and saying, 'We can't really talk about that.'"
Farhad Lohoni, a local tribal leader, had previously claimed that the American hikers had been snatched from Iraq in a cross-border raid by Iranian agents, as reported in the Daily Telegraph in August 2009. Lohoni said that his relatives had seen a group of men cross the border into Iraq, and he told the Telegraph that the hikers "were targeted and captured by a group that came over from Iran, ignoring Iraq's sovereignty. We know this and it means that Iran must have wanted to take Americans hostage at this sensitive time."
A State Department spokesman said that he had been unaware of evidence that the three were arrested in Iraqi territory but would not comment further.
Once captured, Bauer, Fattal and Shourd were sped by car to the local headquarters of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Marivan, a town close to the border in the province of Kurdistan. When they arrived, according to two sources, the Americans were remanded into the custody of Lt. Col. Heyva Taab, then head of the Revolutionary Guards' intelligence unit in the region. According to these sources—a former member of the Revolutionary Guards and an official who serves in the provincial government at Sanandaj—only Taab would have had the authority to order the Americans' detention and eventual transfer to Tehran. A branch of the Iranian military with at least 125,000 personnel, the Revolutionary Guards are responsible for maintaining national security throughout the Islamic Republic.
"When I heard the news that they had arrested American hikers, I immediately thought, This is the work of the intelligence arm of the Revolutionary Guards, because they have people in this region," says Idris Ahmedi, an Iranian Kurdish exile and a regional expert who is a visiting scholar at Georgetown University. "I thought they were most likely lured into Iranian Kurdistan, where they could arrest them. It is consistent with Iran's past actions."
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