The families of three American hikers detained in Iran have demanded their immediate release outside the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York.
The protest vigil began a weekend of some 30 events around the world – from India to Spain and throughout the United States – to “send Iran a message” exactly a year after the two men and one woman were arrested for allegedly crossing into Iranian territory while hiking in Iraq.
“We hope that the symbolism of visiting the Iranian mission will resonate and they will hear us, loud and clear, that the kids have to come home,” Laura Fattal, mother of Josh Fattal, told swissinfo.ch.
Switzerland represents US interests in Iran because the US and Iran do not have diplomatic relations.
Iran has accused the hikers – Josh Fattal, Sarah Shourd and Shane Bauer – of spying, but the US government has denied the allegations with family members calling them “ridiculous and absurd”. No formal charges have been levelled against the group and no trial date has been scheduled.
In a statement, US President Barack Obama said the prisoners' year-long detention has “nothing to do with the issues that continue to divide the United States and the international community from the Iranian government”.
"I want to be perfectly clear: Sarah, Shane and Josh have never worked for the United States government," Obama said.
About 75 protesters, including many friends and family members of the hikers, attended the New York rally holding mock prison bars and banners calling for the immediate release of the trio, while peace-themed songs such as John Lennon's “Imagine” played in the background.
The three mothers said they had not heard from their children since May, when the Iranian government allowed the parents to visit. That meeting was facilitated by Switzerland.
“The Swiss have been unbelievable. The Swiss ambassador to Tehran [Livia Leu Agosti] has been remarkable. I know they're doing everything they can to assist us,” said Cindy Hickey, mother of Shane Bauer.
The mothers say Leu Agosti puts in requests to the Iranian authorities each day to see their children.
The families say the three were hiking in Iraq's mostly peaceful, mountainous northern Kurdish region when they were seized by Iranian authorities who accused them of crossing the border illegally.
Hickey says there are a lot of “missing pieces” about what really happened at the border that day and that her son had no intention of going into Iran.
In June, US magazine The Nation reported that unnamed sources said the arrest of the three hikers had not even occurred on Iranian soil, but on Iraqi territory illegally entered by the Iranian police.
Hadi Ghaemi, director of International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, who spoke at the New York event, says Iran has “nothing to gain” by holding the hikers.
“The Iranian government has cornered itself and has no way out to justify a year of detention,” he told swissinfo.ch.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for the trio's release, saying in a statement that their detention was unjustifiable.
"Iran has long espoused to the world its commitment to justice, security and peace for all," she said. "We call on Iran to do the right thing and allow these three Americans to return home to their families."
Ghaemi said Clinton's statement would have more impact “if the Swiss government, as representatives of the US government on the ground in Iran, would also make clear how the detentions are outside of Iranian law and international norms.”
The Swiss embassy in Washington said in a statement: "Within the mandate to represent US interests in Iran, Switzerland is strictly acting on behalf of the government we represent and conveys the messages the US government wants us to convey. And in Teheran Swiss diplomats try to ease the situation of the detainees as much as possible."
Karin Kamp in New York, swissinfo.ch
Shane Bauer, 28, and Sarah Shourd, 31, got engaged while in prison in January and plan to marry after their release, according to their relatives.
The couple wear engagement rings that Bauer made from threads he pulled from his shirt. The third hiker, Josh Fattal, 28 plans to be best man at the wedding.
Shourd, a teacher of English, and Bauer, a freelance journalist, had been living together in Damascus, Syria, when Fattal, an environmentalist, came to visit them last July and they went on a trip to Kurdistan.
Relatives say Bauer and Fattal share a cell while Shourd is being held alone but is able to see the others twice a day for 30 minutes.
Because of its neutrality, Switzerland has over the years represented the interests of a number of countries in Iran. Since 1980 it has represented US interests there and looks after Iranian interests in the US.
Iran is one of Switzerland's most important trading partners in the Middle East. A trade agreement was signed in 2005 but has not yet been ratified.
Swiss exports in 2009 totalled SFr756 million ($726 million).
There were 184 Swiss expatriates based in Iran in 2009.
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