Freed US hikers describe harrowing ordeal in Iran

(AP) - Two American hikers being held in an Iranian prison got a big surprise one day after their exercise routine: Instead of being blindfolded

NEW YORK - (AP) - Two American hikers being held in an Iranian prison got a big surprise one day after their exercise routine: Instead of being blindfolded and led back to their cell, theysuddenly heard the words, "Let's go home."

That's what a diplomatic envoy from Oman told them beforewhisking them away to the Tehran airport - and freedom, the two mensaid Sunday at a Manhattan news conference.

"After 781 days of prison, Shane and I are now free men," ajubilant Joshua Fattal announced, hours after he and Shane Bauerlanded at Kennedy International Airport.

Safe on U.S. soil, the two spoke for the first time in publicabout their ordeal of more than two years at the hands of Iranians- accused of spying for their country by illegally walking acrossthe Iran-Iraq border.

They say they simply got lost while hiking with anotherAmerican, Sarah Shourd, who was released last year.

The three paid a brutal price for their adventure, they said.

"Many times, too many times, we heard the screams of otherprisoners being beaten and there was nothing we could do to helpthem," Fattal said.

Added Bauer: "How can we forgive the Iranian government when itcontinues to imprison so many other innocent people and prisonersof conscience?"

Bauer was himself beaten and Fattal forced down a flight ofstairs, Shourd told reporters.

And though their families wrote them daily letters, they had togo on repeated hunger strikes to receive the letters, the men said.

The two managed to hold on to reality by reading letterssprinkled with news of what was happening in the world, Bauer'smother, Cindy Hickey, told The Associated Press.

Eventually, they were told - falsely - that their families hadabandoned them.

Until their release, the last direct contact family members hadwith Bauer and Fattal was in May 2010, when their mothers werepermitted a short visit in Tehran.

"Solitary confinement was the worst experience of all of ourlives," Fattal said. "We lived in a world of lies and falsehope."

But on Sunday, hope filled a media-packed conference room atManhattan's Parker Meridien hotel as the two 29-year-olds walkedin, surrounded by relatives. A smiling Bauer put his arm aroundShourd - now his fiancee.

He had proposed to her while they were both imprisoned, seeingeach other only an hour at a time no more than once a day. Heformed an impromptu engagement ring out of the threads from hisshirt.

Fattal and Bauer were freed last week under a $1 million baildeal and arrived Wednesday in Oman, greeted by relatives andShourd.

The men's families told the AP on Sunday that they don't knowwho paid the bail.

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