American "Hikers" nonviolently resist Iranian prison guards 2009-2011

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Time Period:  
Location and Goals
Location City/State/Province: 
Location Description: 
Evin Prison, on the outskirts of Tehran
The Hikers undertook nonviolent action to exert control over their circumstances and stop themselves from descending into madness.

In 2009, there was great tension between the Governments of the United States of America and Iran. This tension began after the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency backed a coup d’etat that overthrew Iran’s first democratically elected leader in 1953. This tension was heightened by the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when revolutionaries took Americans in Iran as hostages for over a year before finally letting them go. In 2009, the tension between the United States and Iran was increasing due to disputes over Iran’s nuclear program. Both sides had a history of taking political prisoners.

In the summer of 2009, American citizens Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd were living in Damascus, Syria. Their friend and fellow American citizen Joshua Fattel came to visit them, and together the three took a vacation to go hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan. While hiking close to the Iranian border on 31 July, the three spotted a group of soldiers that waved them over. The three obeyed the soldiers, and crossed the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran.

The soldiers threatened Shane, Sarah, and Josh with their guns while they debated what to do with the Americans, before eventually ordering them into an SUV. Shane Josh, and Sarah went limp and refused to move, and the soldiers dragged Shane and Josh into the vehicle. They told Sarah, that she would not be forced, but she accompanied Shane and Josh into the vehicle.

Over the next several days, guards transported Josh, Shane, and Sarah between several facilities in which the guards interrogated them, before eventually taking them to a prison. Once at the prison, the guards blindfolded the three, and then tried to separate Josh from Shane and Sarah. The three latched arms and refused to let go despite being beaten, until eventually Josh let go from Shane and Sarah.

Josh, Shane, and Sarah threatened to hunger strike until they were allowed to see one another again. They went on hunger strike for four days, after which the guards allow them to see one another. The guards then took them each back to solitary confinement, but beforehand, the Americans threatened to hunger strike again in two days if not allowed to see one another. After going on hunger strike again, they were allowed to see one another after three days.

While in solitary confinement, Shane, Josh, and Sarah engaged in acts of disobedience. Sarah and Shane, who were in adjacent cells, were able to speak to one other through the air duct, which was prohibited by prison rules. One day, a guard left the window to Shane’s cell open and the keys in both his and Sarah’s doors, and he was able to sneak out of his cell and into hers that night without alerting the prison guards. Shane and Sarah made love as an act of defiance, and Shane snuck back into his cell before the guards realized that he was missing.

After several weeks, the prisoners were transported to Evin prison outside of Tehran, and put into solitary confinement again. At the end of September, Swiss consulate officials visited the prisoners, and gave them books and food. During Autumn 2009, Josh, Shane, and Sarah engaged in various methods of disruption and disobedience. One time, when a guard took away Josh’s books, he banged on his cell door until the guard returned, and asked him why he took away the books. Ashamed, the guard brought Josh a new book.

Another time, Josh banged on the door to protest against guards who were beating another prisoner in the hall. One of the guards charged into his cell enraged, and was about to beat Josh, when he yelled “I don’t want to fight.” The guard was so surprised that he stopped, and left the cell abruptly. Shane taught himself Morse code so that he could communicate with other prisoners, which was against the rules.

At the beginning of December, guards moved Shane into Josh’s cell, and allowed Josh, Shane, and Sarah 30 minute daily visits. Sarah became severely depressed that she was still isolated, and she harmed herself by banging on the brick walls until she was bleeding. Guards rush in and asked her to stop harming herself, but she declared that she would continue unless the guards gave her a cellmate. The guards refused, but brought her a television and a DVD player.

Josh, Shane, and Sarah realized that they were succumbing to the dehumanizing atmosphere of prison, and throughout that winter and during spring 2010, the American prisoners engaged in acts of disobedience in attempts to exert control over their circumstances and retain their sanities. Sarah put shampoo over the peephole into her cell. Josh put his foot in the way when a guard tried to close his cell door until the guard agreed to open the window in the door. They talked to other prisoners in adjacent cells, stole pens to write messages to one another, and Sarah sang loudly and disruptively.

One day in summer 2010, a prison guard began to beat Josh. Shane placed himself between the two and yelled at the guard, telling the guard to beat him instead. The guard pushed Shane to the ground, but then left.

In September 2010, Sarah was moved from her cell, and was no longer allowed to meet with Josh and Shane, as the Iranian government prepared to release her. On 11 September 2010, Josh and Shane conducted a hunger strike for 24 hours demanding to see Sarah. Guards allowed her to see them before she was released on 14 September.

Several weeks after Iran released Sarah, prison guards stopped bringing Josh and Shane letters from their parents. Josh and Shane conducted a hunger strike for three days until the guards relented, and brought them their letters. The two threatened to hunger strike every 30 days unless the guards brought them their letters. They repeated this tactic all winter. At the beginning of April, Josh and Shane demanded that the guards deliver the letters from Shane’s sister, which the guards had said they were not allowed to deliver. Shane and Josh faked a hunger strike with food they had saved up for 17 days, until the guards relented and delivered all of the letters from Shane’s sister.

Shane and Josh committed acts of disobedience all summer, hoarding barbituates and other medicines that the guards gave them, as well as stealing pens from the guards. At the beginning of August, the guards stopped delivering Josh and Shane their letters. Josh and Shane went on hunger strike immediately, and the guards responded within 24 hours, giving them their letters.

Iran released Shane and Josh to the Omani government on 21 September 2011, after a 2 year long external campaign encompassing many countries, political and social elites, and tactics such as public speeches, group lobbying, petitioning, and a rolling hunger strike conducted by the families and close friends, as well as a great deal of political maneuvering by the Iranian and Omani governments.

Research Notes

not known

Bauer, Shane, Joshua Fattal, and Sarah Shourd. A Sliver of LIght. 1. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2014. Print.

Sciutto, Jim, et al. "Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, Hikers Freed from Jail in Iran, Arrive in Oman." ABC News. ABC News, 21 Sept. 2011. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.

Foti, Kaitlyn. "Families mark six months of hikers’ detainment in Iran." Glenside News Globe Times Chronicle [Glenside, PA]. 3 Feb. 2010. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.

Moss-Coane, Marty. Shane Bauer, Joshua Fattal and Sarah Shourd on their imprisonment in Iran-Radio Times. WHYY Public Media, 20 Mar. 2014. WHYY Radio TImes. Web. 20 Apr. 2014. <>.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Tom McGovern 31/03/2014