Three Americans who were jailed by Iran for more than a year and accused of being spies while hiking along the border with Iraq are suing their former captors, hoping to persuade a judge to award them damages for the torture they say they endured.
The lawsuit being pursued by Sarah Shourd, her ex-husband and fellow journalist Shane Bauer, and their friend Josh Fattal is being overseen by federal judge Richard Leon in Washington, who in 2019 ordered Iran to pay Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian $180m for imprisoning him for more than a year on false espionage charges.
Any damages that Shourd, Bauer, Fattal and their families might receive through their lawsuit would come out of Iranian government assets that the US has seized through sanctions as part of the congressional Justice for Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund.
Adding to the intrigue of a saga that began back in 2009 is that Shourd and Bauer had publicly presented themselves as opponents of US sanctions against Iran after they were freed. In 2016, he had called such penalties “totally irresponsible” and she had said they hit “the poorest of Iranians the hardest”.
Attorneys for the former couple and Fattal did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment, and neither did the Pakistani embassy in Washington DC, which represents Iran’s interests in the US.
The lawsuit recounts how Shourd and Bauer moved to Yemen and then Syria in 2008 while dating because they wanted to continue practicing their Arabic language skills while Shourd engaged in anti-war activism and Bauer supported himself through freelance journalism.
Fettel visited them in July of the following year and accompanied them on a hike to a waterfall in Iraqi Kurdistan that was popular with tourists. During that hike, they apparently crossed into Iran without realizing it, and a group of soldiers whom they mistook for Iraqis stopped them to rummage through their hiking gear, cameras, wallets and passports, the lawsuit said.
The soldiers forced the hikers into a sport-utility vehicle and drove them around for three days while the Americans feared they would be executed at any moment. They were eventually brought blindfolded into the infamous Evin prison in the capital, Tehran, and held in small, sparse cells.
The prisoners were interrogated in a manner that seemed aimed at trying to get them to admit they were US spies, the lawsuits contend. Bauer was asked if he was an employee of the US mercenary firm Blackwater or whether he could use his training as a journalist to write newspaper articles for the guards. Shourd faced questions about whether she’d ever visited the Pentagon – she had not – and if she was on a US government mission.
At one point, a guard told Bauer that he knew the American wasn’t a spy. “But … it was up to the US government and the Iranian government to negotiate his release,” the guard added, according to the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs’ lawsuit recounts how they often heard the screams of other prisoners who were being tortured, making them fear that they would be next.
Bauer, Fattal and Shourd were all held in isolation, where they described barely clinging on to their sanity. Eventually, Bauer and Fattal were put together in one cell, the lawsuit said – but Shourd remained alone, denied treatment for a breast lump, precancerous cervical cells and other health problems.
The Iranian regime let Shourd free in September 2010, holding up her release as an act of clemency honoring the end of Ramadan after the intervention of the country’s president at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Bauer and Fattal were released a year later, apparently as a gesture meant to curry favor for Ahmadinejad as he prepared to fly to New York to attend a United Nations general assembly meeting. At the time, the Obama White House issued a statement saying: “All Americans join their families and friends in celebrating their long-awaited return home.”
The three described experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress after returning to the US, making it difficult for them to readjust to their lives there. Shourd and Bauer – whose work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times and Mother Jones – married near the ocean in California in 2012. They divorced seven years later.
Family members of theirs also reported suffering high levels of distress not knowing whether their efforts to bring Shourd, Bauer and Fattal back to them alive would work.
Alongside her mother, Shourd sued the Iranian government in May, arguing that the daughter was held as nothing more than a political hostage while demanding compensation for the ordeal that they subsequently weathered. Fattal, his parents, and his brother followed suit in July. And Bauer, his parents, and his sisters did the same in August.
The Iranian regime had not responded to their complaints in court and no trial date had been set as of Friday.
Iran’s government never replied to the lawsuit Rezaian filed against it in October 2016. But Leon heard the case in Iran’s absence before awarding him $30m in compensatory damages and $150m in punitive damages meant to discourage the regime from ever again behaving similarly, according to the Wilmer Hale law firm, which represented Rezaian.