Oregon friends mark imprisoned hiker's birthday

June 4, 2011 - 11:29 PM

COTTAGE GROVE, Ore. (AP) — Dozens of friends and colleagues of Josh Fattal gathered Saturday in Oregon to celebrate his 29th birthday — and mark his second one in prison in Iran.

He is one of two young American hikers the Iranian government has been holding since July 2009 on espionage charges.

Before he went hiking near the Iraq-Iran border, Josh Fattal worked three years on sustainable farming practices at the Aprovecho Research Center in Cottage Grove, south of Eugene.

"We had a very moving celebration and ceremony," his brother Alex Fattal told The Associated Press.

He said about 40 friends and colleagues gathered in Cottage Grove, at one point exchanging gifts that had that relevance to his brother.

The other hiker is Shane Bauer. On May 11, they were due in court, an appearance that was canceled without explanation. Last year, Bauer's fiancee, Sarah Shourd, was released.

The group also sent tiny "prayer boats" with candles floating on the Row River, where Josh Fattal used to swim. Alex Fattal said the boats symbolized the group's desire for their freedom.

"He made a lot of friends and became a very important member of the community in a pretty short time," Tegra Fisk, organizer of the celebration, told the Eugene Register-Guard earlier. "This is really meant to be a celebration of his life, which was and is a really extraordinary life."

Alex Fattal has been rallying support for the hikers, including a fast among family members and friends.

"What Josh was doing at Aprovecho was really on the forefront of sustainable living, and he needs to get back to doing that work," Alex Fattal said. "Shane has been doing outstanding independent reporting, which we really need."

Alex Fattal said he's put his doctoral dissertation in anthropology at Harvard on hold to work on freeing the hikers, and he's given up asking himself about the motives of Iran's leaders, knowing he may never get an answer.

"On a certain level, we have to maintain our optimism," he said. "It's the fuel that keeps us going. On another, it's devastating to have your hopes built up only to have them dashed, time and again."

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Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com