The families of three Americans accused of espionage in Iran are attempting the delicate feat of keeping a spotlight trained on the plight of their loved ones while trying to avoid the tangled politics of the tense U.S.-Iran relationship.
Even as the Americans' captivity passed the 100-day point this week, the families of Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal together have orchestrated a sophisticated public relations campaign that has included joint family statements, a Web site and online petition, even a logo. And they have been careful not to criticize Iran or its leaders, instead repeating requests for compassion and leniency for three young people they say simply went astray when they crossed into Iran while on a hike in a part of northern Iraq popular with tourists.
"We just keep re-emphasizing, for good reason, their innocence," Josh Fattal's mother, Laura Fattal of suburban Philadelphia, said Tuesday. "We reiterate their academic studies, their personal relationships with so many people around the world. ... We're responding thoughtfully, we believe."
In late July, Iranian authorities took Bauer, 27, into custody along with Shourd, 31, and Fattal, 27. All three are University of California, Berkeley, graduates; Bauer and Shourd had been living in Damascus, Syria, and Fattal was visiting them.
The espionage accusation was the first signal that Tehran intends to put the trio on trial, raising concerns they could be used as bargaining chips during deadlocked negotiations between Washington and Tehran over Iran's nuclear program.
In addition to the Web site freethehikers.org and several rounds of media interviews, family members have attended a series of vigils around the U.S. and posted regular updates to a Facebook page.
"There's not a crystal ball telling us how our decisions will fall," Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey, told The Associated Press in an interview. "We just have to make the best decisions we can."
Hickey said her son, a freelance journalist, would "fall on the floor laughing" at the suggestion he is a spy. She said his interest is not in politics but rather the plight of the poor and suffering worldwide.
Several family members interviewed by the AP said that, while they receive regular advice and guidance from State Department officials, no one in the U.S. government has told them what they can or can't say.
Instead, family members talk to each other _ constantly. Hickey, who lives near Pine City, Minn., said on a typical day she'll trade up to 100 phone calls or e-mail messages with other family members. Shourd's mother, Nora Shourd of Oakland, Calif., said even the smallest decisions are made only after consultations between members of all three families.
"Every move we make is filtered through one question: Is this best for the kids?" Nora Shourd said.
While there's no handy set of rules for the families to refer to, some have spoken recently with several other Americans and their family members recently in similar situations. The list includes Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American journalist convicted of espionage in Tehran but released on appeal in May after five months in captivity; and Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for Current TV released from a North Korea prison in August after about five months, after diplomatic outreach by former President Bill Clinton.
Euna Lee's husband, Michael Saldate, had little word of his wife as he waited at home with their 4-year-old daughter.
"I had to find the balance between not upsetting our own government, not upsetting the North Koreans and yet conveying the concerns for my wife. That was difficult; that's a tough line to balance."
Saldate said at the time, some people urged him to be more critical of North Korea. "But at that point, I didn't care about the relationship between North Korea and the United States. At that point it's not political. You just want your family back together."
Associated Press Writer Patrick Walters in Philadelphia contributed to this report.