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Individual Justice Battles State Sovereignty

By Kelsey Rwayitare, Student Writer for The Journal of Gender, Race & Justice

U.S. hikers Shane Bauer (L) and Josh Fattal (R) are reportedly near to being released from prison. Photo credit: CNN World.

On July 31, 2009, the Iranian government arrested three American hikers that had allegedly crossed the border of Iran while hiking in Northern Iraq. While one of the three hikers is back in the United States—apparently for health reasons—the two men, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, “… each received five years for espionage– specifically ‘cooperating with the American intelligence service’ — and three years for illegal entry…” from the Iranian Judiciary. The outcry of the United States’ citizenry and elected officials called for the release of the two men. However, the Iranian government, through its judiciary, declined the invitation to give up its sovereign power to deal with issues inside its borders. When Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, in an interview with NBC released this month, stated he believed the Americans would be released in a few days as a humanitarian gesture, new hope emerged. However, who has the power to release the two men, and what role should the United States government play in the conflict?

The American public turned to the American government upon the arrest of the two men. Disregarding international law and the sovereignty of Iran, the America public demanded their elected officials do something. Watching CNN from the comfort of our living rooms, we easily forgot that American justice does not always perfectly coincide with the concept of justice for others. For example, upon seeing the headline that the Americans may be released on bail soon, my international friend said, “Why should they get out of prison simply because they have the power of America behind them?” A little shocked, my natural biases came out in full force as I claimed they were innocent based on the lack of evidence against them. However, as I thought on the question longer, I remembered a striking line in a news article I recently read about the conflict. Upon the news by President Ahmadinejad that the Americans could be released in a few days, “… the [Iranian] judiciary shot back that only it could make decisions about their release.”

This idea that the judiciary the holds the primary power to try individuals has long been upheld by the American people. However, when it is one of our own, in a foreign country, we naturally throw out their judicial system as illegitimate. Can justice be an international concept or is it constrained by sovereignty and individual states’ agendas? It is not so much that the international community would not like to see these seemingly innocent men freed, but instead, that they should be freed within a justice system independent of American pressure. Holding two individuals in prison with little or no evidence to support their charge appears facially unjust, however, releasing them simply because of their powerful nationality may be equally so.

The United States recognized this basic right of the Iranian government and admirably restrained its use of power primarily to the use of tough language and information gathering. The State Department went through the Swiss government in an effort to keep diplomatic relations relatively friendly while Hillary Clinton relied upon her “…hope that the Iranian authorities will exercise the humanitarian option of releasing these two young men.” While some Americans viewed the inaction of the American government as weak, others would have viewed the use of force as wrongfully infringing upon Iran’s self-governance.

Overall, the United States seems to have done a surprisingly good job advocating for its overseas citizenry without putting too much force upon the Iranian government. While some Americans naturally call for more action by the United States government, there is only so much it can do for the justice of two citizens when weighed against the justice inherent in allowing sovereign nations to conduct their judicial systems independently. While there is apparently little basis for the Iran government to hold our two Americans, it appears that Iran has the power to conduct its affairs as it pleases without US intervention and that, in and of itself, may be some form of justice.