American Sarah Shourd, who was released by Iranian authorities on September 14 after spending more than a year in jail on suspicion of spying, has told RFE/RL that an Iranian official offered to pay her $500,000 bail to secure her release. Thirty-two-year-old Sarah Shourd and two companions were arrested by Iranian authorities in July 2009 while hiking near the Iran/Iraq border. Because her fiancé, Shane Bauer, and friend Josh Fattal remain in jail in Tehran’s Evin prison, Shourd says she doesn’t feel completely free. She also told RFE/RL that last week in New York, she provided Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad with evidence that proves their innocence. RFE/RL's correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari interviewed Shourd on September 28.
RFE/RL: What can you tell us about your September 24 meeting in New York with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad? Did he give any hint that your fiancé Shane Bauer and your friend Josh Fattal might be released soon?
Sarah Shourd: The president was very gracious and very kind, particularly to my mother. He showed a lot of concern about her health and her upcoming surgery and he repeated a lot of the same statements that he’s made in public -- that he would give a recommendation for expediency and leniency in the case of my fiancé Shane Bauer and my friend Josh Fattal to the judiciary in Iran. He also promised to pass on a lot of evidence that I gave him of our innocence.
RFE/RL: What kind of evidence did you give him?
Shourd: Information that we received about Northern Iraq -- Iraqi Kurdistan -- as being a safe and popular tourist destination. About Ahmad Awa, the waterfall that we camped out at with hundreds of other Kurdish families, and that our hotel manager, our taxi driver, and many other individuals recommended it as a safe place to hike in the mountains. We also gave President Ahmadinejad evidence of why Shane and Josh and I were in Damascus. Shane -- my fiance and I -- we were living in Damascus for almost a year, I was teaching English at a local school and I was studying Arabic at the Damascus University. We wanted the president to know more about us, about our histories, about our peace activism, things that we feel prove our innocence beyond a doubt.
RFE/RL: Why do you think Ahmadinejad’s Intelligence Ministry brought the espionage charges against you and your friends, while there seem to be zero evidence and your lawyer has also said that there is no evidence?
Shourd: I don’t think I will ever get a clear answer on that. I think that the more the world learns about Shane, Josh, and I the more the world will come to see -- and so much of the world has already come to see -- that we’re the opposite of spies. We’re anything but spies. We’re peace activists. Shane is an international journalist. Josh Fattal is an environmental teacher. All of this is well documented.
RFE/RL: Let’s talk about your time in jail in Iran. What was the worst moment you had?
Shourd: The worst moment that I had in jail was probably the first time that I was separated from Shane and Josh, when we first arrived in Tehran. I think it was day four after our arrest. And we were brought to Evin prison and torn apart and thrown into separate cells. That was a terrifying moment for me because I had no idea when I would see them again. I had no idea what was going to happen to us, even though at that time I felt secure that once they investigated us, they would realize that we were tourists, they would find no absolutely no evidence or indication that we intended to come to Iran, because of course we didn’t. We had no idea that we were near the border. We made a mistake of judgment as far as how close the border was to Ahmad Awa, based on the recommendations that we had gotten about it being a safe place for hiking. That moment was very terrifying. It was months before I saw them again.
Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd became engaged while in prison together.
And now, in a way, this is the greatest separation of all because my being freed first, although it’s of course a relief for my family and a relief for Shane and Josh, it’s a horrible thing to be separated from them because they’re the only reason I was able to keep my sanity and my calm in that situation in the first place. And now I feel that I can’t really know what’s going on with them. I can only pray and hope that they’re being treated the same way and that they’re getting my letters that I’m writing them every day. I know they know that I’m doing everything I can possibly do to help them, but being separated from them and not knowing when it’s going to end is very painful for me and of course doubly painful for Shane and Josh, who are still cramped in a small cell for absolutely no reason, having committed no crime and they don’t know when they’re going to get out.
RFE/RL: You’ve said that you also had a few happy moments, including when Shane proposed in Evin prison.
Shourd: That was incredible. Under the circumstances, it was beautiful and romantic. Shane is a wonderful person, he’s brave and courageous and selfless and he took the best care of me that he possibly could while we were in prison. The short periods of time we would spend together Shane and Josh would always bring me back when I was slipping away and unable to find hope. We always found reasons to celebrate. We made something we called ‘prison pie’ out of crushed up cookies mixed with butter for the crust, and for the filling we mixed dates and chocolate -- it’s really quite delicious. We did everything we could to make it an experience that we could get through, to keep a little bit of heaven in each of our days.
RFE/RL: How do you think this experience is going to change you in the long term?
Shourd: That’s a good question. I‘ve always done humanitarian work, from peace activism starting in college after 9/11 against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to promoting indigenous rights in Mexico, to being against [the Israeli] occupation in Palestine. I think my prison experience is only making that [a] deeper connection because I identify so much more personally with people that are suffering in the world. Being in prison hasn’t in any way changed my commitment to be a bridge between my country and people in the Middle East in any way that I can and an advocate for peace and dialogue. I’m only more determined than ever after my difficult and unfortunate experience, which is of course ongoing with my fiancé and friend still in prison, I’m only more determined to forge ahead with trying to realize my beliefs and my vision for a better relation between my country and the Middle East, and Iran in particular.
RFE/RL: We broadcast to Iran -- what would you like to say to the Iranian officials and Iranian people who might be listening to this?
Shourd: I would just really like to beseech the Iranian government and religious leaders to continue this same humanitarian trend. I really want to appreciate the steps that they’ve made towards granting me a visit with President Ahmadinejad and of course granting my release on bail. I’m deeply, deeply grateful, as is my family and my friends, and I would like to beg them to extend this humanitarian gesture to my fiancé, Shane Bauer, and my friend Josh Fattal. They do not deserve to be in prison one day longer than I do. They’re innocent. If we did indeed cross the border we had absolutely no intention to do so and are very, very sorry. We were unaware of the border. It was unmarked, indistinguishable. We were tourists in Northern Iraq, which is not a war zone.
I would really like to say to the Iranian people that I had absolutely no animosity [toward] them, [and] neither does Shane nor Josh, no animosity toward the government or religious leaders of Iran. I would just really like this situation to end for Shane and Josh’s families, and for Shane and Josh, more than anyone else.
I was very touched by a story that I heard about the days preceding my release when there was a scramble for the bail and it was unclear who was going to pay the bail. An Omani official told me that an Iranian official offered to mortgage his house in order to provide the money for my bail because he believed so strongly that I deserved to be freed on bail and that he was so concerned about my health and my well-being and that of my companions and I was so deeply touched by this. I don’t know who this man is and I probably never will but I just want to thank him and every other Iranian that believes in peace and dialogue and wants to be a bridge just the same way that Shane and Josh and I want to be a bridge for a better relationship between our countries cause now there is a very good opportunity. I think there is a possibility for improvement.