NEW YORK – Two American hikers held for more than two years in an Iranian prison came home Sunday, ending a diplomatic and personal ordeal with a sharp rebuke of the country that accused them of crossing the border from Iraq. They declared that they were detained because of their nationality, not their actions.
Joshua Fattal and Shane Bauer, both 29, were freed last week under a $1 million bail deal and arrived Wednesday in Oman, greeted by relatives and fellow hiker Sarah Shourd, who was released last year.
Their saga began in July 2009 with what they called a wrong turn into the wrong country. The three say they were hiking together in Iraq's relatively peaceful Kurdish region along the Iran-Iraq border when Iranian guards detained them. They always maintained their innocence, saying they might have accidentally wandered into Iran.
The two men were convicted of spying last month. Shourd, whom Bauer proposed marriage to while they were imprisoned, was charged but freed before any trial.
Shourd said a "huge burden" has been lifted now that her two friends are free. She said she had felt "it was very wrong" that she was alone when she first came home
The men took turns reading statements at a news conference Sunday in New York, surrounded by relatives and with Shourd at their side. They didn't take questions from reporters.
Fattal said he wanted to make clear that while he and Bauer "applaud Iranian authorities for finally making the right decision, they "do not deserve undue credit for ending what they had no right and no justification to start in the first place."
"From the very start, the only reason we have been held hostage is because we are American," he said, adding that "Iran has always tied our case to its political disputes with the U.S."
The two countries severed diplomatic ties three decades ago during the hostage crisis that began with the occupation of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Since then, each country has tried to limit the other's influence in the Middle East, and the United States and other Western nations see Iran as the greatest nuclear threat in the region.
The hikers' detention, Bauer said, was "never about crossing the unmarked border between Iran and Iraq. We were held because of our nationality."
He said they don't know whether they had crossed the border. "We will probably never know."
The irony of it all, he said, "is that Sarah, Josh and I oppose U.S. policies towards Iran which perpetuate this hostility."
The two also told of difficult prison conditions, where they were held in near isolation.
"Many times, too many times, we heard the screams of other prisoners being beaten and there was nothing we could do to help them," said Fattal. "How can we forgive the Iranian government when it continues to imprison so many other innocent people and prisoners of conscience?"
They said their phone calls with family members amounted to a total of 15 minutes in two years, and they had to go on repeated hunger strikes to receive letters. Eventually, they were told -- falsely -- that their families had stopped writing them letters.
"We lived in a world of lies and false hope," Fattal said.
Fattal called their release a total surprise.
On Wednesday, he said, they had just finished their brief daily open-air exercise and expected, as on other days, to be blindfolded and led back to their 8- by 13-foot cell.
Instead, the prison guards took them downstairs, fingerprinted them and gave them civilian clothes. They weren't told where they were going.
The guards led them to another part of the prison, where they met a diplomatic envoy from Oman.
His first words to them? "Let's go home."
Hours later, the gates of Tehran's Evin prison opened and the Americans were driven to the airport, then flown to Oman.
The days following their sudden release, Fattal said, made for "the most incredible experience of our lives."
Shourd was with the families to greet the two on the tarmac at a royal airfield near the airport in Oman's capital, Muscat. At about 20 minutes before midnight Wednesday, Fattal and Bauer, wearing jeans and casual shirts, bounded down the steps from the blue-and-white plane. The men appeared very thin and pale, but in good health.
The first hint of change in the case came last week when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Fattal and Bauer could be released within days. But wrangling from within the country's leadership delayed efforts. Finally, Iranian defense attorney Masoud Shafiei secured the necessary judicial approval Wednesday for the bail -- $500,000 for each man.
Iran's Foreign Ministry called their release a gesture of Islamic mercy.
Until their release, the last direct contact family members had with Bauer and Fattal was in May 2010, when their mothers were permitted a short visit in Tehran, which Iranian officials used for high-profile propaganda.
Since her release, Shourd has lived in Oakland, California; Bauer, a freelance journalist, grew up in Onamia, Minnesota, and Fattal, an environmental activist, is from Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb.