For Families of U.S. Hikers in Iran, Another Pain: Internet Backlash

Why do so many people seem to express scorn toward the Americans held in an Iranian prison for two years now?

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Laura Fattal stands outside of her Pennsylvania home / AP

Over coffee in Accra last week, I tried to explain the case of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal to an expat friend, an American who -- like thousands of others -- has joined the "got what they deserved" chorus that has grown since Bauer and Fattal were arrested by Iranian forces while hiking near the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009. "You can't just go hiking near a country where we don't have diplomatic ties in a country we occupy," she said. "What did they think was going to happen?"

Safe to say they didn't expect 10 years in the most notorious of Iran's prisons, which is the fate Bauer, a freelance journalist, and Fattal, an environmentalist, face after news leaked Saturday that an Iranian judiciary had sentenced them to eight years in jail (not counting two years already served) on charges of espionage and illegal entry.

The men maintain that they, along with 31-year-old Sarah Shourd, had been hiking along the border when they mistakenly strayed into Iran. There have also been reports that border guards snatched the trio from a safe vantage on the Iraqi side, or that they were lured across by gun-wielding soldiers.Many people who hear the story refuse to believe that three American kids in their late 20s could be so adventurous as to want to hike this fairly remote area. It can't be that they're well-traveled, deeply inquisitive, and eager to see places others don't. It must be -- aha! -- that they're spies, just as the Iranian government claims.

Hatred has gone viral on the internet, where anonymous strangers (many of them in broken and often incomprehensible English, leading to doubts about their motives and affiliation) use them as a lightning rod for what can sometimes seem like every political grievance surrounding Iran, with whom the U.S. has had no diplomatic ties since 1979. Shane and Josh, two unwitting UC Berkeley grads, have become a rare window into Iran, and a way for people to vent their frustrations about everything from Zionism to excessive "do-gooder-ism."

Reading online discussion of the hikers' case and talking to Americans about it, there often seems to be an overwhelming and, frankly, incomprehensible lack of compassion from people who believe they deserve their fate. "Being American and being close to a country with no diplomatic ties to the U.S. and most other western countries, was mindless," read one such comment on an Al Jazeera post. "If you walk along the edge of a cliff and fall off you cannot blame the cliff."

And that's a nice one. Nine people 'liked' it.

What their detractors don't see is the harsh reality of life for these two men, a life that -- if Iran gets its way -- will means an entire decade away from home. We all make mistakes. Sometimes they're grave. Imagine your own mistake leading to Evin prison, the most notorious in Iran. There they share a 10 by 14 foot cell. It's where they eat, sleep, bathe, and use the bathroom, 23 hours per day.

Fattal, who used to wander the roads of Bangalore and sit on the roof of his home in South Africa, is surrounded by concrete. Bauer, who had achieved full fluency in Arabic -- a feat unattained by many Western journalists in the region -- sits on his bed, unable to report the violence raging in Syria, where he had been living at the time of the hike. Their close-knit families have had next to no contact with them since July 2009, save for one short visit by their mothers in May 2010 and two 5-minute phone calls home, one of which came this spring after the boys went on a two-week hunger strike.

It's a fate that seems harsh punishment for even the severest of criminals. But the hikers have seen not an outpouring of compassion. Surprisingly, the response has been one of such negativity Los Angeles Times columnist Megan Daum dedicated a column to the odd phenomenon earlier this summer, coining the term "hiker hate."

President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and foreign dignitaries -- everyone from Desmond Tutu to Iranian Nobel winner Shirin Ebadi and Muhammad Ali -- have defended the hikers against Tehran's allegations of spying for the CIA, for which no evidence has ever been produced. Still, posters on anonymous message boards on media and political sites have for the last two years questioned why they were hiking in such an unstable area, asserting time and again that "they got what they deserved." With the weekend's sentence came a new flood that prompted one of Josh's close friends to message that she was "beyond belief ... at the hate on our site and all over the net."

Talk to Sarah Shourd on the phone and you hear a young woman missing her fiance, not a trained CIA operative dealing with the fallout of a mission gone awry. Instead they've become an example for those who want to rant about the U.S.'s own treatment of its political prisoners -- an issue, to be sure, but one that now has two wrong-place, wrong-time Americans it its crosshairs. Said one representative commenter: "...the US can hardly criticise [sic] given that they operate their own concentration & torture camps where the victims are held indefinitely with no visitations by the Red Cross or their own countries... the US runs a kangaroo court where the only outcome is guilty & the detainees lawyers are not allowed to cross examine witnesses. But they still have the gall to criticise and condem others..."

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Karen Leigh is a Berlin-based journalist, writing for Time and other publications. She previously covered Africa, India, the Arab Spring, and the 2008 presidential campaigns.

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