Two American hikers held for years in an Iranian prison came home Sunday, declaring that they were detained because of their nationality, not because they might have crossed the border from Iraq.
Joshua Fattal and Shane Bauer arrived in New York on Sunday morning, ending their diplomatic and personal ordeal with a sharp rebuke of the country that sentenced each to eight years in jail for espionage and illegally walking into Iran. They say they may never know if they actually stepped across the border while hiking and getting lost.
"From the very start, the only reason we have been held hostage is because we are American," Fattal said at a news conference at a Manhattan hotel. "Iran has always tied our case to its political disputes with the U.S."
The two 29-year-olds 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.
The men's families said Sunday they don't know who paid the bail.
The men's 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, to whom Bauer proposed marriage while they were imprisoned, was charged but freed last year before any trial.
A beaming Shourd faced reporters and cameras that packed a conference room at Manhattan's Parker Meridien hotel.
"There's a huge burden lifted off of all of our chests — so much joy," she said. "Shane and Josh and I are beginning our lives again, and there are so many new joys that await us; I've never felt as free as I feel today."
But her face darkened when she was asked whether the men had been mistreated in captivity. She said Bauer was beaten and Fattal forced down a flight of stairs.
The men took turns reading statements, surrounded by relatives and Shourd. 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."
The two countries severed diplomatic ties three decades ago during the hostage crisis. Since then, both have 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 even crossed into Iran: "We will probably never know."
The irony of it all, Bauer said, "is that Sarah, Josh and I oppose U.S. policies towards Iran which perpetuate this hostility."
The two also detailed the difficult conditions in the Tehran prison 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," 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?"
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.
"Solitary confinement was the worst experience of all of our lives," Fattal said. "We lived in a world of lies and false hope."
They kept in shape physically and mentally by lifting water bottles, discussing books and asking each other questions, family members said. And they ripped slivers of cloth from prison blindfolds to secure their footwear so they could run for exercise.
The two managed to hold on to reality by reading letters from family members that included news of what was happening in the world, Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey, told The Associated Press.
Fattal said their release last week came as 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 8(2 1/2)- by 13-foot(4-meter) 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 then 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.
Bauer and Shourd were living in Damascus, Syria, when Fattal came to visit and the three went hiking.
On Sunday, the men's families told reporters that they hadn't made plans for what they would do next — except for carving out some private time together. They would not say where they were sleeping on Sunday night.