Muhammad Ali seeks release of Iran-held US hikers

Two American hikers held captive in Iran for nearly two years

have a big hitter in their corner: boxing champion Muhammad Ali,

the self-proclaimed ”greatest of all time.”

Ali on Tuesday led a prominent group of U.S. Muslims in

appealing for the release of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal. The

28-year-old Americans were taken into custody along the Iran-Iraq

border in July 2009 and have been held by Iranian authorities ever

since. Bauer’s fiancee, Sarah Shourd, was released on bail last

year and returned to the United States.

Like the former heavyweight champion, the two Americans only

”wanted to experience the world, they wanted to experience other

cultures, they wanted to experience other people,” said Ali’s

wife, Lonnie, who spoke on his behalf. The 69-year-old Ali sat in a

chair next to her, in a dark suit and sunglasses. He didn’t

speak.

The appeal was made a day after the two hikers were allowed to

call home for only the third time since their arrest. Bauer and

Fattal told their families they had staged a 17-day hunger strike

after they were prevented from receiving letters.

Bauer’s mother, Cindy Hickey of Pine City, Minn., and Fattal’s

mother, Laura Fattal of suburban Philadelphia, joined the call on

the Islamic republic’s leaders for action. A trial had been

scheduled to resume on May 11, but Bauer and Fattal weren’t brought

to court and no explanation was given to the families or their

lawyer in Tehran.

Earlier Tuesday, a Foreign Ministry spokesman told Iranian state

TV that calling them hikers is a ”joke.”

The two Americans are charged with espionage. They deny the

charges.

”Their detention has everything to do with animosity between

Iran and the United States, and nothing to do with anything they

have done,” said Shourd, who was released eight months ago on

$500,000 bail and has refused to return to Iran for trial. She is

being prosecuted in absentia.

The three Americans have denied the spy charges and claimed they

were only hiking in a scenic area of northern Iraq near the Iranian

frontier.