Last Updated 5:36 p.m. ET
NEW YORK - "After 781 days in prison, Shane and I are now free men."
Surrounded by relatives and loved ones, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer spoke to an audience of press in New York City, just days after being released from an Iranian prison where they had been held for more than two years.
Fattal, Bauer and Sarah Shourd were hiking along the Iraq-Iran border in July 2009 when they were detained by Iranian security forces and imprisoned. The three were accused of espionage.
Although Shourd was released on bail after a year, the two men were convicted of spying and illegal entry, and sentenced to eight years in jail.
Last Wednesday, Fattal and Bauer were released, after payment of $500,000 bail each was paid.
"It was clear to us from the very beginning that we were hostages," Fattal said today. "Hostage is the most accurate term, because despite certain knowledge of our innocence, the Iranian government has tied our case to its political disputes with the U.S."
Fatal said he and Bauer had been held in almost complete isolation during their captivity. "In all the time we spent in detention, we had a total of 15 minutes of telephone calls with our families, and one short visit from our mother. We had to go on hunger strikes repeatedly just to receive letters from our loved ones.
"Many times, too many times, we heard the screams of other prisoners being beaten, and there was nothing we could do to help them," he said.
"In prison, we lived in a world of lies and false hope. The investigators lied that [the ambassador] from the Swiss Embassy in Tehran did not want to see us. They told us, again falsely, that they we would be given due process and access to our lawyer, the courageous and persistent Mr. Masoud Shafiee. Most infuriatingly, they told us that our families stopped writing us letters. "
"Releasing us is a good gesture and no positive step should go unnoticed. We applaud the Iranian authorities for finally making the right decision regarding our case. But we want to be clear," he continued. "They do not deserve undue credit for ending what they had no right and no justification to start in the first place."
Bauer said they will always regret "the grief and anxiety that our hiking trip led to, above all to our families.
"I would like to be very clear: This was never about crossing the unmarked border between Iran and Iraq. We were held because of our nationality," Bauer said. "The only explanation for our prolonged detention is the 32 years of mutual hostility between America and Iran. The irony is that Sarah, Josh and I oppose U.S. policies towards Iran which perpetuate this hostility. We were convicted of espionage because we are American. It is that simple. No evidence was ever presented against us; that is because there is no evidence and because we were completely innocent. The two court sessions we attended were a total sham. They were made up of ridiculous lies that depicted us as being part of a conspiracy to undermine Iran.
Shane said the three of them had "experienced a taste of the Iranian regime's brutality."
"We have been held in almost total isolation from the world and everything we love, stripped of our rights and freedom. You may ask us, now that you are free, can you forgive the Iranian government for what it has done to you? Our answer is this: How can we forgive the Iranian government when it continues to imprison so many other innocent people and prisoners of conscience? It is the Iranian people who bear the brunt of this government's cruelty and disregard for human rights. There are people in Iran who are imprisoned for years, simply for attending a protest, for writing a pro-democracy blog, or for, worse, being an unpopular faith. Journalists remain behind bars and innocent people have been executed.
"If the Iranian government wants to change its image in the world, and ease international pressure, it should release all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience immediately. They deserve their freedom just as much as we do," Bauer said.
"In prison, every time we complained about our conditions, the guards would immediately remind us of comparable conditions at Guantanamo Bay. They would remind us of CIA prisons in other parts of the world, and the conditions that Iranians and others experience in prisons in the U.S. We do not believe that such human rights violations on the part of our government justify what has been done to us, not for a moment. However, we do believe that these actions on the part of the U.S provide an excuse for other governments, including the governments of Iran, to act in kind."
The two also expressed their appreciation for tens of thousands of people around the world who supported them and donated to the Free the Hikers campaign.
They also thanked their lawyer, Masoud Shafiee, and to world leaders and individuals instrumental to championing their cause, including His Majesty Sultan Qaboos of Oman, the Swiss Ambassador in Tehran, U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon, Iraqi President Jalal Talibani, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the governments of Turkey and Brazil, actor Sean Penn, Muhammad Ali, singer Yusuf Islam, Cyndi Sheehan, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the U.S. government officials who worked for their release.
"Now that we are home, we know you will give us the time we need to reconnect with our families and rebuild our lives," Bauer said. "When Sarah was about to walk out of Evin prison last year, we vowed to each other that none of us would be free entirely until all of us were free. That moment has now thankfully come.
"Sarah, Josh and I can now finally leave prison behind us. We want more than anything to begin our lives anew, and with a new appreciation for the sweet taste of freedom."
"Our joy knows no bounds," said Sarah Shourd, describing her reaction to their freedom and her reunion with her friends. "I've never felt as free as I feel today. And I think that's true for all of us. And we have really just been listening to Shane and Josh and catching up, and there's so much to talk about and so many joys to be had, and we really have only scratched the surface."