Editor's note: This story originally ran in the Inquirer on May 25, 2011.

WASHINGTON - With the silent but still imposing Muhammad Ali at their side, the mothers of American hikers Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer on Tuesday beseeched Iran to release their sons after 22 months in prison.

Against a banner bearing the words "662 Days Without Freedom," Laura Fattal of Elkins Park and Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey, of Minnesota, stood with the heavyweight boxing icon and U.S. Islamic leaders to stress the pair's innocence. They face trial on charges that they entered Iran illegally for espionage.

Their plight brought the 69-year-old Ali to Washington from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. With his speech impeded by Parkinson's disease, his wife, Lonnie, was his voice.

The hikers reminded her husband of himself as a young man, "a citizen of the world" with a thirst for knowledge of other cultures, she said at the National Press Club news conference.

"After reading about Shane and Josh, he felt . . . these were two young men - who regardless of what international policy says, regardless of what politics says - wanted to experience the world, wanted to experience other cultures, wanted to experience other people," she said. ". . . That's a good thing."

Ali, who converted to Sunni Islam in 1975 after being a follower of the Nation of Islam, is a popular figure in Iran. "They love this man," she said, adding later that "Muhammad would leave [for Tehran] in a second if he thought it would bring these boys home."

On Tuesday, according to an Associated Press report from Tehran, an Iranian Foreign Ministry official said that calling the pair "hikers" was a "joke," and hinted their prosecution would proceed.

Of the repeated postponements of the trial, Laura Fattal said, "Iran's indecision and delay have taken a terrible toll - on them and on us."

On Sunday, the pair were allowed five-minute phone calls home - their first since Nov. 27, and third since their arrest. Josh Fattal told his father, Jacob, he was "honored" Ali had taken up his cause.

The Islamic representatives who joined the mothers at the National Press Club news conference - from the Islamic Society of North America, the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, the Universal Muslim Association of America, and the Council on American Islamic Relations - sent a letter to Iran's Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asking for "compassion and mercy."

"After listening to the families," they wrote, "we believe that these Americans did not seek to cause any problems between the United States and the Muslim world . . . but were in the region for the opposite purpose, to promote dialogue and understanding."

Fattal, an environmentalist, and Bauer, a photojournalist, both 28, were trekking on vacation near an unmarked border in northern Iraqi Kurdistan when they were arrested by Iranian guards on July 31, 2009. Taken into custody with them was Sarah Shourd, 32, a language teacher and Bauer's fiancee. The three, all graduates of the University of California at Berkeley, began their travels in Damascus, Syria, where Bauer and Shourd were living.

Her son went to Damascus, Fattal said, "with an open heart," intrigued by stories of "a generous culture so very different from what most Americans read about in the news," his mother said. That is what sent him traveling, "nothing else."

Shourd, who spent more than 400 days in solitary confinement and developed medical problems, was released in September on $500,000 bail. It is unclear if Iran will try her in absentia.

At the news conference Tuesday, Shourd said, "Josh and Shane have now been imprisoned for eight months longer than I was. Their detention has everything to do with the animosity between the United States and Iran, and nothing to do with two innocent men."

Critics have said the Iranian border was a foolhardy place to hike. However, Shourd said, "there is no way we can go back and decide not to travel to Iraqi Kurdistan, not to take the hotel manager's advice about visiting a beautiful waterfall, not to take that particular trail. What's done is done, and now these events are part of our destinies."

The drawn-out trial of the hikers was delayed again May 11, after authorities, without explanation, failed to bring them to court for a hearing. No new date was set.

On Tuesday, her voice weighted with anxiety, Bauer's mother reiterated that the two sons "have suffered long enough."

"Life has continued on around us," Hickey said, "while we remain frozen in time."

Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.