Three Americans jailed in Iran for 10 months embraced their mothers and spoke of their life in Tehran's most dreaded prison Thursday in an emotional reunion that Iranian authorities broadcast on a main international channel.
The women hope their weeklong visit will secure the release of Sarah Shourd, 31; her boyfriend, Shane Bauer, 27; and their friend Josh Fattal, 27.
The mothers threw their arms in the air and rushed to embrace their children as they entered a room at a high-rise hotel that overlooks the Evin Prison where the three have been held.
They cried, laughed and kissed. The conservative Islamic head scarves worn by the mothers slipped back and bouquets of flowers were set aside as they sat together and began to reconstruct their lives since last summer.
The families later ate an abundant lunch together at a feast of rice, kebabs and other traditional Middle Eastern dishes. The prisoners ate heartily and appeared to relish the food.
The visit was scheduled to last until evening, said the families' Iranian lawyer, Masoud Shafii, but it was not clear whether the three detainees would have to return to the prison for the night.
Iran's main task appeared aimed at leveraging high propaganda value for allowing the visit.
The meeting at the Esteghlal Hotel in north Tehran received extensive coverage on Iran's state-run Press TV, the government's main English-language broadcast arm. Reporters for the foreign media also were allowed their first glimpse of the three Americans since their arrest on the border with Iraq last July.
The trio has been accused of spying and entering Iran illegally after being detained on the porous border with Iraq last July. Relatives say the three were simply hiking in Iraq's scenic and largely peaceful mountainous northern Kurdish region.
The decision to give a highly scripted public face to the private family moments suggests the trip by Nora Shourd, Cindy Hickey and Laura Fattal could be drawn deeper into Iran's brinksmanship with the West over Tehran's disputed nuclear program and a U.S.-led push for harsher sanctions.
Lawyer Shafii predicted it was "very unlikely" that the jailed Americans would be allowed to return home with their mothers because the case has not yet reached the courts.
But he added in an interview with AP Television News that decisions could be made outside the normal legal framework. "Anything can happen," he said.
The three prisoners did not specifically address any of the accusations. It's unclear whether this was their decision or a requirement by Iranian officials.
Iran granted the women visas to visit their children in what it called an "Islamic humanitarian gesture" and the Americans appealed to them to release the three on the same grounds.
"We hope we're going home soon, maybe with our mothers," Josh Fattal said as the group was interviewed while seated together on a low-slung couch.
Added Shane Bauer: "We don't really know much what's going on outside prison. We hope that Iran can continue with humanitarian gestures, like letting our mothers come, by releasing us on humanitarian grounds."
The three prisoners appeared healthy, wearing jeans and polo-style shirts. Sarah Shourd wore a maroon-colored head scarf.
They described their routines behind bars and the small things that take on major significance: being allowed books, letters from home, the ability for some exercise and the one hour each day they are all together.
The last direct contact with their families was a five-minute phone call in March.
Sarah Shourd said the their treatment by the Iranian authorities has been "decent" and loneliness has been the hardest part of her detention because she was isolated as a woman.
"Shane and Josh are in a room together but I'm alone and that's the most difficult thing for me ... I am alone for 23 hours," she said.
In the other hour, "we sing together and tell each other stories about our life," she said.
Swiss diplomats, who represent U.S. interests in Iran, have reported that Sarah was suffering a serious gynecological condition, while Bauer had a stomach ailment. But such health issues were not raised publicly during the meeting.
Shafii said the mothers were seeking to bring their appeal to the highest levels, even hoping for meetings with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all state matters.
Hickey, Shane Bauer's mother, expressed gratitude "to the Islamic Republic of Iran and the authorities for granting us a visa."
"We know that this is a great humanitarian act that they have given to us. Our reception was wonderful when we came into Iran," she said in comments aired on Press TV.
On Wednesday, Iran's minister of intelligence, Heydar Moslehi, repeated the claims that the trio were involved in espionage.
But Shafii noted that the three have not formally been charged and said allegations have come only from "nonjudicial officials."
The case could face complications from Iran's diplomatic showdown with the U.S. and its allies. Just before the mothers' arrival in Tehran, the United States said it had won support from other major powers for a new set of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran over its refusal to stop uranium enrichment.
The U.S., which has not had formal diplomatic relations with Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and its allies accuse Tehran of seeking atomic weapons. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
In recent years, a number of foreigners held by Iranian authorities on espionage and other security-related charges have been released after months of detention - most recently French academic Clotilde Reiss, 24. She was freed last week after more than 10 months in jail. She had been accused of provoking unrest and spying during unrest that broke out after June's disputed presidential election.
Hickey lives in Minnesota, Shourd is from Oakland, California, and Fattal is from suburban Philadelphia.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)