The families of the two Americans held in Iran on espionage charges hope that a nearly two-year struggle to secure their release is about to reach a successful end.
The trial of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal begins Wednesday morning in Tehran. The families, one in Pennsylvania, the other in Minnesota, plan to stay up through the night to await the news. The two men have now been in prison for 21 months.
Human rights groups have criticized Iran for denying the detainees' access to an attorney, delaying the trial, and not providing evidence of espionage or other crimes.
"This is absolutely unacceptable and unlawful and should end immediately," said Faraz Sanei, the Iran and Bahrain researcher for Human Rights Watch.
"We're tired, and we're determined," said Cindy Hickey, Bauer's mother, who lives in Pine City, Minn. "There's no way anything's going to stop until Shane and Josh are home, but it's taken a huge toll on our families."
Bauer, Fattal, and Bauer's girlfriend, Sarah Shourd, were arrested by Iranian military officials in July 2009 while hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan, close to Iran's border.
The Iranian government has accused the three Americans of espionage and illegally entering the country. The detainees have denied the espionage charges and have said they were hiking on the Iraq side of the mostly unmarked border.
Bauer, now 28, and Shourd, now 32, had been living together in Damascus, Syria, family members said, where Shourd worked as a teacher and Bauer as a freelance journalist. Fattal, now 28, is an environmental activist who was visiting the couple when they decided to travel to northern Iraq.
Shourd was allowed to leave Iran in September 2010 on $500,000 bail after family members expressed concern about her health. She was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Bauer's parents said they expected their son would be released a short while later. The two detainees had gotten engaged while in prison, a fact revealed when their mothers were allowed to see their children during a two-day visit in May 2010.
But instead, the detention dragged on for months with few updates. The families found an Iranian attorney who agreed to take the case, but the Iranian government has not allowed the attorney to meet with his clients, family members said. The attorney, Masoud Shafii, was not available for immediate comment.
The Iranian government has prohibited almost all contact between the detainees and their families. Hickey last heard from her son when he sent her a Christmas card last year. She writes to her son regularly, but doesn't know whether he receives the letters.
'WE'RE IN OUR OWN PRISON,' MOTHER SAYS
The long and uncertain detention has taken a toll on the Bauer family. Hickey closed her business last year to devote her time to securing her son's release. She spends hours on the phone each day, talking with government officials, reporters, and the family of Josh Fattal, the other detainee. She reads hundreds of news websites and checks for the latest updates several times an hour.
Before her son was arrested, "I knew where Iran was, but that's about it," she said. Now she has shelves full of books on Iranian history and politics. She's also begun teaching herself Farsi, the main language in Iran.
Bauer's father, who is divorced from Hickey, has not heard from his son in about a year. Like Hickey, he writes his son letters, but doesn't know if he receives them.
"It drives you crazy," Al Bauer said. "You try to think of something to help them all the time, but your hands are tied because you can't communicate."
Al Bauer, who lives in Shakopee, Minn., said his son tried to reassure him when they last spoke in May 2010, for about a minute and a half.
"He just wanted to say he loves us and is worried about us," he said. "I told him not to worry about us. We have family here."
The State Department has called for Iran to release the Americans, while also acknowledging that the lack of diplomatic relations with Iran has hampered those efforts. The State Department did not reply to an interview request on Monday.
"They're victims of this nuclear game between the United States and Iran," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told MPR News in July 2010. "The fact that we don't have diplomatic relations — we have probably myths on both sides of what is happening in each country — that has resulted in the kind of paralysis we are seeing in the case of the three hikers."
The Swiss embassy has provided assistance on the United States' behalf. The Iranian government has only allowed the Swiss consulate to visit the detainees two or three times in the past 21 months, human rights groups and family members said.
However, the case hasn't attracted at much attention as the families might have hoped.
"To a large extent, I think it's being drowned out because there's so many other things that are happening in Iran, and especially now, of course, with everything that's going on in the Middle East," said Faraz Sanei, the Human Rights Watch researcher.
ON TRIAL WITH THE 'JUDGE OF DEATH'
Bauer and Fattal pled not guilty during their first court appearance in February. Shourd, who had returned to the United States on bail, declined to return to stand trial.
Judge Abolghasem Salavati, who oversees Branch 15 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court, will preside in court on Wednesday. Salavati has been called the "Judge of Death" for sentencing several dissidents to execution after the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009. The judge is included on a list of 32 Iranian officials subject to travel bans and other sanctions by the European Union for human rights abuses.
Trials in Tehran Revolutionary Court sometimes last just 10 or 15 minutes, and family members are usually not allowed in the courtroom, said Sanei. Bauer's family has been told by their attorney that the judge will have up to a week to issue a decision, but the judge could also decide to postpone the trial because Shourd did not return to Iran.
"All indications are here that it's a game that they're playing, essentially," Sanei said. "They haven't shown any sort of good faith in terms of trying to bring these individuals to justice in a reasonable and timely fashion."
Given the uncertainty, Bauer's family said they continue to do exactly what they've been doing for the last 648 days — wait and hope.
"I wake up every morning now, thinking, 'How much can we take?'" Hickey said. "And that takes me right to Shane and Josh in their cell. If we're feeling this way, it must be horrible for them."