Robert Fisk: Is Shane Bauer really an enemy of Iran?

The journalist, a fearless defender of the Middle East's dispossessed, is about to go on trial in Tehran for alleged espionage

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Journalism is not an exact art, so the Americans who go on trial in Tehran for "espionage" next Wednesday are called the "hikers", seized by Iranian border guards as they trekked close to the frontier in Iraqi Kurdistan almost two years ago. Shane Bauer and his fiancée Sarah Shourd, along with Shane's friend Joshua Fattal, were on holiday, enjoying the beauties of the great Ahmed Awa waterfall in Iraq when their vacation turned into one of those macabre and frightening dramas that Iran often seems to present to the unwary.

But the world's press somehow lost sight of the fact that Mr Bauer – far from being just a "hiker" – is also a fine and committed journalist, a writer of brilliant reports from Iraq, Ethiopia, Syria, even from the Native American Oglala Sioux reservation at Pine Tree, in America's South Dakota. He has interviewed the Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and his long articles reflect enormous compassion for the poor and suffering of Iraq and for the Palestinians under siege in Gaza.

So why on earth is Iran holding Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal when they quite obviously sympathise with those whom the Islamic Republic of Iran constantly supports? There are, of course, wheels within wheels in Iran, but many of its officials have a keen sense of justice. In a world packed with violent men and war criminals, not a few of them in the West, the incarceration of these two men within the forbidding confines of Evin prison, let alone their trial next week, is an injustice.

Is this special pleading? Of course it is. Though I have never met Mr Bauer, I have spoken frequently to Ms Shourd, who became engaged to him in the prison and was later – correctly – freed by the Iranian authorities. Both men love the Middle East and clearly had nothing to do with espionage: had they really been spies, they could have asked for a legal visa to Tehran, not tramped through the mountains of Kurdistan.

So if the Iranian embassy in London, whose diplomats are all students of the British press, have the time and patience (which they do have) to translate this article and the extracts of Mr Bauer's journalism printed here and send them to the Iranian Foreign Ministry, all to the good. They might also send a copy to Iranian ambassador Gadanfar Rokon Abadi in Beirut, whom I count as a friend.

Yes, I know the argument, that the Iranian judiciary and the Iranian government are separate. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has personally told me this. Yet Mr Ahmadinejad is not averse to giving his views on court cases. Without his intercession or that of Iran's "Supreme Leader" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the mothers of all three Americans could not have visited their children a year ago, nor would Ms Shourd have been released on bail to return to America last September. Indeed, in the very same month, Mr Ahmadinejad himself promised that he would ask the Iranian judiciary to treat the case of Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal with maximum leniency and speed, even though the prisoners were initially denied access to consuls of the Swiss embassy which represents US interests in Iran.

Both men are 28; Mr Fattal should be back in America in his job as a teacher. Mr Bauer should be back in the Arab world, writing his fearless prose on the oppressed peoples of the region. Ms Shourd herself had been living in Damascus before her imprisonment, helping to care for refugees from the war in Iraq.

Mohammad Javad Larijani, the secretary general of Iran's High Council for Human Rights, has already said that it is "quite possible" that the Americans strayed into Iran by mistake. Interestingly, he is the brother of Ardashir Larijani, the Iranian parliament chairman and, more to the point, he is also the brother of Sadeq Larijani, the Chief Justice of Iran.

I was recently assured, with great courtesy, that I may travel to Iran whenever I wish; in fact, a visa was offered to me only a few weeks ago. So if Iran can allow a free-speaking journalist such as me into the country, it must be even easier to let Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal go home.

In the words of Shane Bauer...

Shane Bauer's work has appeared in The Nation, Mother Jones and other liberal American magazines. In 2009, he was reporting on the brutality of the US-trained "dirty brigade" Special Forces in Iraq.

As Hassan tells it, it was a quiet night on 10 June, 2008, in Sadr City, Baghdad's poor Shia Muslim district of more than 2 million people, when the helicopter appeared over his house and the front door exploded, nearly burning his sleeping youngest son. Before Hassan knew it, he was on the ground, hands bound and a bag over his head, with eight men pointing rifles at him, locked and loaded.

At first he couldn't tell whether the men were Iraqis or Americans. He says he identified himself as a police sergeant, offering his ID before they took his pistol and knocked him to the ground.

The men didn't move like any Iraqi forces he'd ever seen. They looked and spoke like his countrymen, but they were wearing American-style uniforms and carrying American weapons with night-vision scopes.

They accused him of being a commander in the local militia, the Mahdi Army, before they dragged him off, telling his wife he was "finished". But before they left, they identified themselves. "We are the Special Forces. The dirty brigade," Hassan recalls them saying.

The Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) is probably the largest special forces unit ever built by the United States, and it is free of many of the controls that most governments employ to rein in such lethal forces... Although the force is officially controlled by the Iraqi government, popular perception in Baghdad is that the ISOF... is a covert, all-Iraqi branch of the US military.

On the same night Hassan Mahsan's house was raided, 26-year-old Haidar al-Aibi was killed with a bullet to the forehead. His family says there was no warning... Fathil al-Aibi says the family was awakened around midnight by a nearby explosion. His brother Haidar ran up to the roof to see what had happened and was immediately shot from a nearby rooftop. When Fathil, his brother Hussein and his father, Abbas, tried to bring Haidar downstairs, they were shot at too. For about two hours he lay lifeless on the roof while his family panicked as red laser beams from rifle scopes danced on their windows.

Iraq's New Death Squad, published in The Nation, June 2009

A year later, Bauer was in the dangerous Sunni Muslim Iraqi city of Fallujah, reporting on the power of a militia leader and local businessman, Sheikh Eifan, who had received massive US payments to combat al-Qa'ida.

I am sipping tea with a roomful of men when the sheikh bursts in, sweeping a long stick across the room. "Nobody say a word!" he shouts. Four heavies march in behind him and throw a man on the floor, his feet, hands and eyes tightly bound with kaffiyehs. A man in green camo with an AK-47 blocks the doorway.

The captive's chest heaves as Eifan stands over him, stick in hand. An hour earlier, the sheikh was shouting into his cellphone about a botched reconstruction project. Eifan stands to lose $50,000, and the compound has filled with murmurs about when and how he'll explode. The crime of the man curled up on the floor isn't related; in fact, no one is sure he's committed a crime at all, but some goat herders have accused him of being involved in a kidnapping. Eifan fires questions at him while the room holds its collective breath. "Don't stop to think of lies!" WHACK! The stick comes down against his thigh.

Fallujah's police chief shows up, clearly deferring to Eifan's authority. Finally, satisfied with the interrogation, Eifan orders his men to bring tea to the shaken detainee. "We have many levels of guests here," he says, looking over at me. "This one is on a lower level." The police carry the man away. I ask Eifan what will happen to him. "They will interrogate him in a different way," he says flatly.

The Sheikh Down, Mother Jones, September 2009

Living temporarily in Damascus, Bauer took time off in November 2008 to visit the magnificent Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers in western Syria – with remarkable conclusions about the American occupation of Iraq, and an ending which – given his present predicament – ends on a note of fearful irony.

It's strange how the crimes of history are softened with the passage of time. As I walk along its perimeter, enlivened by the crisp, early winter chill, I find it difficult to feel the distant pain of the thousands at Ma'arat al-Nu'uman, slaughtered on 12 December, 1098, some 60 miles to my north by the Crusader armies of Count Raymond of Toulouse, who after the orgy of killing, cooked and ate many of their victims... I suspect that the locals – who tend to see a clear continuity between the Crusades, European colonialism, and the subsequent American military conquest – don't share the glee of us westerners when they tramp around this relic of foreign invaders.

With the exception of the Ottomans, the Romans probably left behind the heaviest footprint hitherto. The Americans, however, will certainly leave more bases in the Middle East than the Romans did. The 37 military bases the Romans commanded at the height of their empire in AD117 is paltry next to the 761 bases the Americans have outside the US, not including Iraq and Afghanistan. Even the British, at their peak, had only 36. That's less than half of American bases in Iraq alone, which once numbered 110, now about 75.

But like the Romans, the Americans will leave more than military bases behind. They will leave cities. Their towns of cement may not measure up to the beauty of the stunning Roman city of Palmyra in Syria's eastern desert, or the sheer number of the Byzantines' settlements, whose dead cities total around 600 in Syria alone, but they will certainly be bigger. The new embassy complex in Baghdad is roughly the size of Vatican City, with a Marine barracks, 300 homes, 21 other buildings, and its own water, electricity and sewage systems... Like the castles of Burzei or Musyaf in Syria, most of the US fortresses spread across Turkey, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and other Middle Eastern countries... will probably get little attention from tourists (of the future) who tend only to visit the best-preserved. When the Americans are long gone, and visitors come to gaze at the decaying buildings, will the significance of each fortress be lost?

Before visiting hours ended, and the castle's heavy wooden doors were locked, I sat in one of the empty prison chambers, pitch black except for a bit of light cast into the corner by a hole in the ceiling... I tried to imagine, for one minute, what the prisoners in that room might have heard and felt as the days passed.

From Bauer's blog, November 2008

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