NEW YORK – An American woman who spent 410 days imprisoned in Iran praised its leaders Sunday for the “humanitarian gesture” of freeing her but expressed frustration at the continued detention of two companions, while Iran’s president suggested the hikers could be bargaining chips in his tempestuous relationship with Washington.
Sarah Shourd, 32, mixed political niceties with firm denials of guilt in her first extensive public comments since leaving Iran’s Evin Prison on Tuesday. She appeared alongside her mother, Nora Shourd, who held her daughter’s hand as they walked into a conference room in a Manhattan hotel after flying to the United States.
As Shourd and her mother delivered prepared statements, the mothers of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, who remain in Evin accused of espionage, stood nearby, clutching large color photographs of their 28-year-old sons. Later, Bauer’s mother, Cindy Hickey, said they had requested a meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his stay in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, which opens today.
Shourd, careful to be diplomatic while her friends remain imprisoned, began by thanking Ahmadinejad and Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, by name. She said she hoped their “compassionate release” of her would not go unrecognized, but expressed unbridled frustration at the trio’s arrest, which she blamed on a “huge misunderstanding.”
Iranian officials detained the three in July 2009 after they went hiking in northern Iraq, near the Iranian border. Iran said they crossed the frontier on a spying mission. Shourd said the border near the popular hiking spot was “entirely unmarked and physically indistinguishable” and that the three had no intention of entering Iran.
“We committed no crime and we are not spies,” said Shourd, her voice firm but occasionally shaking slightly with emotion as she described the anguish of leaving Bauer – her fiancé – and Fattal.
“This is not the time to celebrate,” she said, describing herself as “only one-third free” until her companions are released.
But Ahmadinejad made clear in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” that he expected something in return for Shourd’s freedom, raising the question of whether the two American men would become caught in a political tug-of-war.
“I believe it would not be misplaced to ask that the U.S. government should make a humanitarian gesture and release the Iranians who were illegally arrested and detained here in the United States,” he said, referring to Iranians arrested over the years for violating U.S. laws banning economic and military cooperation with Iran or for supporting terrorism.