Freed US hikers describe harrowing ordeal in Iran

(09/26/11) NEW YORK (AP) - Two American hikers being held in an Iranian prison got a big surprise one day after their exercise routine: Instead

(09/26/11) NEW YORK (AP) - Two American hikers being held in an Iranian prison got a big surprise one day after their exercise routine: Instead of being blindfolded and led back to their cell, they suddenly heard the words, "Let's go home."

That's what a diplomatic envoy from Oman told them before whisking them away to the Tehran airport - and freedom, the two men said Sunday at a Manhattan news conference.

"After 781 days of prison, Shane and I are now free men," a jubilant Joshua Fattal announced, hours after he and Shane Bauer landed at Kennedy International Airport.

Safe on U.S. soil, the two spoke for the first time in public about their ordeal of more than two years at the hands of Iranians - accused of spying for their country by illegally walking across the Iran-Iraq border.

They say they simply got lost while hiking with another American, Sarah Shourd, who was released last year.

The three paid a brutal price for their adventure, they said.

"Many times, too many times, we heard the screams of other prisoners being beaten and there was nothing we could do to help them," Fattal said.

Added Bauer: "How can we forgive the Iranian government when it continues to imprison so many other innocent people and prisoners of conscience?"

Bauer was himself beaten and Fattal forced down a flight of stairs, Shourd told reporters.

And though their families wrote them daily letters, they had to go on repeated hunger strikes to receive the letters, the men said.

The two managed to hold on to reality by reading letters sprinkled with news of what was happening in the world, Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey, told The Associated Press.

Eventually, they were told - falsely - that their families had abandoned them.

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.

"Solitary confinement was the worst experience of all of our lives," Fattal said. "We lived in a world of lies and false hope."

But on Sunday, hope filled a media-packed conference room at Manhattan's Parker Meridien hotel as the two 29-year-olds walked in, surrounded by relatives. A smiling Bauer put his arm around Shourd - now his fiancee.

He had proposed to her while they were both imprisoned, seeing each other only an hour at a time no more than once a day. He formed an impromptu engagement ring out of the threads from his shirt.

Fattal and Bauer were freed last week under a $1 million bail deal and arrived Wednesday in Oman, greeted by relatives and Shourd.

The men's families told the AP on Sunday that they don't know who paid the bail.

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