The families of two American hikers held in Iran have made countless TV appearances, enlisted celebrities for help and even traveled to Tehran to keep the spotlight on the men. Their latest tactic: a hunger strike that even they acknowledge is a desperate measure.
Nothing they've done yet has swayed the Iranian government, not after nearly two painful years of separation.
"As family members, we're taking a big hit and we're getting to the bottom, financially, emotionally, physically," said Cindy Hickey of Pine City, Minn., the mother of Shane Bauer, who has been held along with Josh Fattal for 21 months. "We're all suffering from this. It's very desperate."
Fattal, Bauer and Bauer's fiancee, Sarah Shourd, were arrested along the Iraq-Iran border in July 2009 and held on espionage charges, which they deny. Shourd was allowed to return to the U.S. last year on bail. Iranian officials ordered her back to Tehran for the trial, but she declined.
Hickey and Fattal's mother, Laura Fattal of suburban Philadelphia, began their hunger strike Thursday. They said it was done in solidarity with their sons, who they believe are also on a hunger strike in Iran because they have done it before. However, the mothers said they don't know for sure because independent observers have been denied access to the men.
Suzanne Maloney, an Iranian affairs expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said she doubted the hunger strike would have any effect, "if only because Tehran has had many opportunities to make dramatic humanitarian gestures and yet have continued to hold these young men on really unjustified charges."
She said the Iranian government appears to be using the imprisonment of the men as a bargaining chip and hasn't yet been willing to cash it in. "It is a political tool on the part of the Iranian regime, and they are trying to extract a price for it," she said. "I can only imagine the frustration of the families."
Hickey and Laura Fattal have not spoken with their sons for nearly six months and haven't seen video of them since Feb. 6 when the men, both 28, made an appearance in court. "We saw them on film and I did not like what I saw," Hickey said. "There were very anxious, thin, white with gray under their eyes."
The trial had been scheduled to resume on May 11, but the men weren't brought to court and no explanation was given to the families or their lawyer in Tehran. Without facts, Hickey said it's hard not to assume the worst.
"Are they being treated harshly? Are there things, marks, they don't want us to see?" she said. "After a few months, one questions, are they are even alive? That is the deepest, darkest fear that I push back on a regular basis."
In Tehran, Masoud Shafiei, the hikers' lawyer, told The Associated Press on Thursday that he wrote earlier this week to judicial officials requesting access to the two prisoners for himself and a Swiss ambassador, Livia Leu Agosti, who represents U.S. interests in Iran in the absence of direct diplomatic relations.
"Unfortunately, there has been no answer, so far," he said.
Laura Fattal said she worries what shape the men will be in when they do get out. "We are particularly frightened for their psychological and physical health," she said. "Thank God they have each other."
The hunger strike comes on the one-year anniversary of Hickey and Fattal's visit to Tehran, the only time they have seen their sons in person since their arrest on July 31, 2009. The two women say they will drink only water; when they feel they can't continue, Shourd will take it up. From there, other family members and supporters will continue the strike, Fattal said.
"We don't know what will happen," said Fattal. "We always hope for Iran to do what is right."
The hikers say they were in Iraq's northern Kurdish region and that any crossing into Iran was inadvertent. They deny the espionage charges.
Since the three were arrested, their families have given numerous interviews and reached out through the web, Twitter, YouTube and to their 26,000 followers on Facebook. Those efforts have led to coordinated vigils in dozens of countries at once. Supporters have produced short documentary films about Josh, Shane and Sarah and video pleas for their release from Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, and Muhammad Ali.
The families have received letters of support from President Barack Obama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and others. Thousands of people have signed their online petitions. There was a trip to a peace conference in London to raise awareness.
Alex Fattal, Josh's older brother, said the effort has been paid for mostly by small donations made through http://www.freethehikers.org and at smaller events around the country, such as an art auction in San Francisco in January.
Associated Press Writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report