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The Yellow Ribbon Project

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As President Obama prepares to visit Beijing in November, senators are urging the commander in chief to press PRC leaders on the need to allow a Chinese human-rights lawyer to move to the United States.

Gao Zhisheng, a Christian and author of A China More Just who represented people abused by the People’s Republic, disappeared into custody of the government six times between December 2006 and December 2011. Clients he had represented included the pastor of an illegal house church, coal miners, Falun Gong members, dissidents, and property owners whose land was seized by the communist government.

Gao’s wife and children were tormented by false reports of his death and allegations that he wandered away from policy custody. He resurfaced one time in March 2010, having survived torture and under constant surveillance by Chinese authorities. His family had fled and was granted political asylum in the U.S.

A month later, Gao disappeared again into the black hole experienced by China’s prisoners of conscience, kept for 20 months in the basement of a military facility before his transfer to remote Shaya Prison in Xinjiang. Now 50, Gao is reportedly in ill health.

Grace Ge Geng, who was 13 when police first raided her family’s home and seized her father, testified before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee last December that police sat behind her in class each day and even followed her into the restroom.

“My 3-year-old brother was forced to be escorted to the kindergarten in the police car as well. His classroom is the only room with a surveillance camera in the whole kindergarten. Starting from September 2008, the policemen did not allow me to go to school anymore,” Geng said.

“I’m living in the country with the upmost freedom in the world, but I still feel very sour in my heart because of my dad’s situation. The freedom has not yet come to my dad, so it still has not genuinely arrived for me and my whole family.”

She pleaded with members of Congress and “kind people in U.S.” to “hear our helpless voices and take actions right now.”

“I know that only you can help me get back my happiness and normal life, comfort my brother’s young heart and feelings. I know that only you can help my dad be released with peace, and let my family be reunited. I wish that President Obama and Vice President Biden could mention about my father’s name Gao Zhisheng in public occasions and urge the immediate release of my father without conditions,” Geng said.

“I wish that staffs from U.S. Embassy in China could go to visit my father in the prison. It has been almost a year now that no family or lawyer visit was allowed to see my father.”

Gao was released from prison on Aug. 7 into another monitoring situation tantamount to house arrest.

On Sept. 8, Gao’s wife, Geng He, admitted in a statement at the National Press Club that “fearing for him has been part of my life.”



More than 500 prayer vigils in 33 countries marked today’s grim anniversary of two years in Iranian custody for Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini.

After Saeed’s 2012 arrest by Iranian authorities, he was convicted in January 2013 for crimes against the national security of Iran, a charge tied to his involvement many years earlier with establishing Christian house churches. Sentenced to eight years behind bars, the 34-year-old has endured torture and is in ill health.

Franklin Graham joined Saeed’s wife, Nagmeh, and supporters from the American Center for Law and Justice at a prayer vigil outside the White House on Thursday evening. Their two young children, Rebekka and Jacob, sang worship hymns in honor of their father.

“The kids and I are longing to see Saeed returned home safely to us,” Nagmeh said in a statement. “The kids have been suffering for too long. Our family is ready. It is time. We are praying for a miracle.”

Nagmeh said Graham has been a “father figure, a spiritual adviser and a huge support to my family.”

“Mr. President, followers of a peaceful religion do not hold followers of another religion, like Naghmeh’s husband, American Pastor Saeed Abedini, captive for two years in Iran for no other reason than his faith in Jesus Christ,” Graham said.

“Rev. Saeed Abedini believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Abedini believes that Jesus took our sins, and the sins of all mankind, to the cross. Rev. Saeed Abedini believes that Jesus Christ rose from the grave triumphantly and that He’s alive and that He can come into any heart that is willing to invite Him in.”

The Abedinis’ journey began in 2000, when Saeed converted from Islam to Christianity and started house churches in Iran under government supervision. He met Naghmeh, who has lived in the U.S. since the fourth grade, in Tehran in 2002, and they married two years later.

In 2005, Saeed and Naghmeh came back to the U.S. after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stepped up persecution of Christians. Saeed became a naturalized citizen in 2010.



As world leaders converged upon New York this week  for the 69th United Nations General Assembly, the sister and brother-in-law of a U.S. Marine held for more than three years by Iran came to town to ask members of the P5+1 for help.

Flagstaff, Ariz., native Amir Hekmati was seized by the Iranian government in August 2011 while on a trip, with proper visa documents from the Iranian government, to visit relatives in Tehran. He was originally sentenced to death in a quickie trial on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage, recently retried and sentenced to 10 years behind bars for “collaborating” with the U.S. government.

Sarah Hekmati told PJM late Wednesday afternoon that Islamic Republic representatives know that she has been pounding the pavement on her brother’s behalf. “It’s in their ear that the family is in town,” she said.

Among the nations negotiating with Iran on its nuclear program this week, she said Germany responded to her request and talked with her a bit to hear the family’s story.

“We are cautiously optimistic,” Sarah said of the week’s efforts. “There’s never enough you can do until he’s home on American soil.”

“We’re trying to get to the ears of the Iranian delegation that’s here to take our case back to the judiciary.”

And even if Iran is insistent on not overturning the trumped-up conviction against Amir, the Hekmatis are stressing the humanitarian reasons to send the decorated Iraq war veteran home.

Amir’s father, Ali, 63, suffers from terminal brain cancer and has had three strokes. He filmed a video recently released by the family in which he weakly describes the “rough life” he’s endured lately and addresses his son directly: “It has been a long time since last I’ve seen you.”

“You can understand how difficult this is on so many levels,” Sarah said. “He really felt like this was an opportunity to give a personal plea to them.”

In March, Ali’s doctor appealed directly to the Iranian government in a statement verifying the failing health of Amir’s father. “It is the family’s hope that Amir may be released to be reunited with his father, and to care for his family,” wrote Dr. Jami Foreback, an internist at McLaren-Flint hospital, stressing that “it is unclear how much time Dr. Hekmati has to live.”

In addition to Ali’s illness, Sarah and her husband, Ramy Kurdi, have juggled raising their two young children as they have traveled to rallies and lobbying opportunities to speak exhaustively on Amir’s behalf over the past few years.

Sarah said that when they were leaving for New York, her 4-year-old daughter asked if “we’re going to rescue her uncle.”

“It’s a roller coaster,” she said. “We obviously wake up every day in disbelief that this is real.”

The Hekmatis did receive a bit of a welcome surprise last month when, without warning, Amir was one of more than 40 inmates plucked from the political prisoners section of Tehran’s notorious Evin prison and transferred to Ward 7, a lower security section generally used for white-collar convicts.



A House Foreign Affairs subcommittee will convene a hearing in two weeks on the detention of U.S. Marine Reserve Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi by Mexico.

Tahmooressi was arrested at the border the night of March 31 and is currently being held in the El Hongo II prison in Tecate, Mexico. He reportedly had a rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, a .45-caliber pistol and more than 400 rounds of ammunition in his truck when he was stopped at the San Ysidro crossing.

Testifying at the Oct. 1 Western Hemisphere Subcommittee hearing will be the Marine’s mother, Jill Tahmooressi, and talk-show host and veterans advocate Montel Williams.

“We should never forget the sacrifices men and women in uniform have made. U.S. Marine Sergeant Andrew Tahmooressi’s combat-related PTSD is a life-threatening condition he acquired in defense of his country while serving on the battlefields of Afghanistan, and he needs to return to the United States for specific and urgent treatment,” Foreign Affairs chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said in a statement announcing the hearing.

“I have maintained my respect for Mexico’s laws and sovereignty throughout, but since visiting Sgt. Tahmooressi at his prison in Mexico, I have become more committed than ever to ensuring his immediate release on humanitarian grounds,” Royce added. “Sgt. Tahmooressi is an American hero, whose wrong turn at the Mexican border has had the devastating effect of delaying his much-needed PTSD treatment for too long.”

Royce and the subcommittee chairman, Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), have been visiting Tahmooressi at his Tecate prison.

“As Congress begins to contemplate once again committing our nation’s servicemen and women to the fight against terrorism, it is incumbent on us to stand by our heroes when they return home,” Salmon said. “As a direct result of his honorable service in Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Sergeant Andrew Tahmooressi now suffers from combat related PTSD. Tragically, instead of receiving the treatment he needs, he is being held in a Mexican prison.”

“As a member of Congress it is my obligation and duty to protect heroes like Andrew who have suffered the ravages of war in service to our nation,” Salmon continued. “I’m convening this hearing to honor his service and work to ensure his immediate release so that he can receive the treatment he needs.”

Tahmooressi’s last hearing was on Aug. 4. The State Department said two customs officials and two military officials testified.

“While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to the country’s laws. We believe that he is being afforded all appropriate due process,” press secretary Jen Psaki said Aug. 5. “We’d point you and refer you to the Mexican authorities for more information about why the court proceedings are not open to the public.”



A Bakersfield, Calif., man was sentenced to six years of hard labor in North Korea on Sunday in a quickie trial.

The Korean Central News Agency said Matthew Miller “committed acts hostile to the DPRK while entering the territory of the DPRK under the guise of a tourist last April.”

The 24-year-old was denied the right to make any appeal of his sentence.

Miller allegedly wanted to investigate the deplorable human rights conditions in North Korea. Pyongyang said the Californian tore up his visa after arriving in the country.

“A relevant organ of the DPRK put in custody American Miller Matthew Todd, 24, on April 10 for his rash behavior in the course of going through formalities for entry into the DPRK to tour it,” reported KCNA at the time of his arrest.

New Jersey-based Uri Tours staff last saw Miller in Beijing, where they “saw him off to Pyongyang” to meet a local tour guide.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was asked Friday whether the U.S. was stepping in to try to stop Miller’s trial.

“We have requested the DPRK immediately release him and the other detained Americans so they can return home,” Harf said. “As we’ve said, we don’t always publicly outline all of the ways we are working to return our citizens home, but we are very focused on this and have called on the DPRK to release him.”

“We stand w/ Matthew Todd Miller, an American given 6 yrs hard labor. #NorthKorea should release Miller, Fowle & Bae on humanitarian grounds,” the House Foreign Affairs Committee Democrats tweeted.

The White House didn’t have comment. Miller becomes the second American serving time in North Korea.

Devout Christian Kenneth Bae, sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor last year, thought he could help suffering North Koreans in part by leading a tour company in the special economic zones that would help reveal the people’s plight.

One more American has yet to face trial.



Amir Hekmati, right, with his father, Ali, and brother-in-law Ramy.

Today marks three years in Iranian captivity for decorated Marine veteran Sgt. Amir Hekmati, who was arrested while visiting extended family in the Islamic Republic.

Amir is a first-generation American born in Flagstaff, Ariz., after his parents came to America in 1979. Iran claims that because of his father’s Iranian origin, the Marine who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom is not an American citizen.

He’s a proud American, a proud Marine who was getting ready to begin economics studies at the University of Michigan and saw the opportunity to take a two-week break to see family he’d never met in Tehran. Amir secured all of the proper paperwork to enter the country, and was candid about his military background.

On Aug. 29, 2011, Amir called his mother to say he would be wrapping up the trip and coming home soon to Michigan.

Amir was due for a holiday gathering that evening. He never showed up. The family didn’t know if he had been kidnapped or arrested. Four months later, they received confirmation Amir was locked up in Evin prison.

The Hekmatis first learned of the charges against Amir through Iran’s semi-official media, which reported in December 2011 that an American spy was captured. In January 2012, Amir was coerced to confess on national TV, and his family felt optimistic that his release, if past cases were an indicator, might soon follow.

What followed that on-air “confession,” though, was a half-day, closed-door show trial in which Amir was allowed just five minutes with a government-appointed attorney. For charges of intention to commit espionage, something that doesn’t even carry capital punishment under Iranian law, Amir was sentenced to die.

“From January to March, imagine waking up every day to check the news to see if they’ve executed your brother,” his sister, Sarah, told PJM earlier this year. The death sentence was eventually overturned and in April a closed-door court found Amir guilty of “collaboration” with the U.S. government and sentenced him to 10 years behind bars.



A young New Jersey man who was visiting Israel to study at a yeshiva and went missing shortly before Shabbat has been discovered dead in the Jerusalem Forest.

Aaron Sofer, 23, of Lakewood, N.J., was hiking in the forest on Friday when he disappeared. Search teams have been looking for him since 6 p.m. that day.

He was hiking with a friend, who says he lost sight of Sofer as the New Jersey man walked ahead of him down an incline. That was about noontime.

His parents flew to Israel and offered a 100,000 shekel reward for their son’s return. The FBI was involved in the search because Sofer is an American citizen.

The Jerusalem Post reported that Sofer’s body was found today by a United Hatzalah volunteer.

“Soon after beginning our search we came across a man’s body among the shrubbery that seemed to match the missing student’s description,” Yisrael Erlich, a United Hatzalah worker, told the paper. “We immediately notified the police via our phone app, and a large group of police and rapid-responders quickly appeared on the scene. I was not expecting the incident to end in such a horrific tragedy.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement that with the discovery of Sofer’s body “our worst nightmare has come true.”



Steven Sotloff reported from Libya, including investigating the Benghazi attack, before going to Syria.

The mother of the American journalist threatened at the end of last week’s video showing the beheading of James Foley directly appealed to the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State to release her son.

Miami native Steven Sotloff, 31, had written for TIME magazine, Foreign Policy, the Christian Science Monitor, The Diplomat and more when he disappeared Aug. 4, 2013, near the Turkish border.

After photojournalist Foley was beheaded on camera in a video released by ISIS on Aug. 19, his executioner reappeared on camera holding Sotloff by the back of his orange shirt.

“The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” warned the terrorist.

The very fact that Sotloff had been kidnapped surprised media. His family had kept the story dark, hoping a media blackout might give them better negotiations with his captors.

Today his mother, Shirley, pleaded for his life in a video carried by Al-Arabiya.

“My son Steven is in your hands,” she said directly to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. ”Steven is a journalist who traveled to the Middle East to cover the suffering of Muslims at the hand of tyrants. Steven is a loyal and generous son, brother, and grandson. He’s an honorable man and has always tried to help the weak. We have not seen Steven for over a year and we miss him very much. We want to see him home safe and sound and to hug him.”

She said that since her son was captured, she learned enough about Islam to know ”that no individual should be held responsible for the sins of others.”

“Steven has no control over the actions of the U.S. government. He’s an innocent journalist. I’ve always learned that you, the Caliph, can grant amnesty. I ask you to please release my child,” Shirley Sotloff said.

“As a mother, I ask your justice to be merciful and not punish my son for matters he has no control over,” she added. “I ask you to use your authority to spare his life and to follow the example set by the Prophet Muhammad who protected people of the book. I want what every mother wants, to live to see her children’s children. I plead with you to grant me this.”

ISIS supporters, meanwhile, were using the hashtag #StevensHeadInObamasHands to try to heap pressure on the White House to meet its demands to stop airstrikes on the Islamic State.

“As you kill us in Iraq, bomb us in Yemen and torture us in Afghanistan, we will kill you wherever we find you,” read one tweet.

At today’s White House press briefing, spokesman Josh Earnest said he didn’t know if President Obama had seen the mother’s video appeal.

“I have seen the video, and I’ve seen the news reports about the video. And obviously the thoughts and prayers of everybody here at the White House and in the Obama administration are with the Sotloff family as they endure this very tragic situation,” Earnest said.

“As you know, this administration is deeply engaged and doing everything we can to seek the return of every American who is currently being held in that region. But I don’t have an update in terms of the president’s — whether or not the president has seen the specific video in question.”

He said he didn’t know if the making or release of the video had been coordinated at all with the administration. ”I know that the members of this administration have been in touch with the Sotloff family on a regular basis, but I don’t have anything to share in terms of guidance that was offered to them about the wisdom of doing a video like this.”

Earnest also wouldn’t assess whether the video was a wise move.  ”She obviously, as is evident from the video, feels desperate about the — about the safety and well-being of her son, and understandably so,” he said.

“…And the United States is committed to his — to doing everything that we can to try to recover him and rescue him safely and as soon as possible. We certainly would call on those who are holding to release him. But it is the policy of the United States, and has been for quite some time, that this government does not pay ransom for American hostages and not only do we not — well, and we don’t ask others to pay ransom to secure the release of American hostages for the reasons that I laid out, that it only serves to allow those terrorist organizations to finance their operations and only puts greater risk on the lives of other American civilians.”

When shown a clip of the video by MSNBC, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said the entire government and not just the military would “never lose focus on those Americans who are being held hostage and captive in these kinds of environments by terrorists.”

“That’s why we executed that rescue attempt, because we just don’t lose focus,” Kirby said of the failed rescue attempt the Pentagon says was conducted by special forces earlier this summer. “And while we can’t talk about the kinds of ways we’re trying to stay focused on it, I can assure you, I can assure her, I can assure the American people that we’ve not lost focus on him or the other hostages.”

A White House petition asking Obama to ”take immediate action to save Steven’s life by any means necessary” has reached just over 11,000 signatures. It needs 100,000 by Sept. 18 to trigger a White House response.

In the video, ISIS didn’t name a deadline to spare Sotloff’s life.



New Jersey lawmakers are alarmed that a Yeshiva student from their state has gone missing near Jerusalem, and urged the State Department to do all it can to locate the young man.

Aaron Sofer, 23, of Lakewood, N.J., was hiking in the Jerusalem Forest on Friday when he disappeared. He was in Israel to attend an ultra-Orthodox school.

Sofer is the constituent of Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who noted in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday that search teams including Shin Bet have been looking for him since 6 p.m. Friday, to no avail. Today searchers reportedly found items belonging to Sofer and told civilians to leave the area.

He was hiking with a friend, who says he lost sight of Sofer as the New Jersey man walked ahead of him down an incline. That was about noontime.

His parents have flown to Israel and are “desperate that the search for this young man should continue,” Smith wrote.

“He may have been lost or injured and unable to return without assistance. It is also possible that he may have been kidnapped,” Smith added.

The kidnapping and murder of three Yeshiva boys – Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Frenkel, 16 — from the kibbutz Kfar Etzion in the West Bank sparked the current Israeli offensive on Hamas. Naftali was a dual citizen with an American passport.

Smith stressed to Kerry that “it is in the interest of the United States Government to find out what happened to this American citizen.”

“Therefore, I urge you to identify key staff within the Department and all relevant U.S. Government officials at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv who can help Aharon’s family and assist Israeli authorities in the search.”

In a statement, Smith said he learned about the missing man over the weekend “and became very concerned for his well-being.”

In response to his letter, Kerry’s chief of staff David Wade “assured” the congressman that the department “was totally committed to assisting Aharon and his family.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement this morning that he is “deeply concerned over the disappearance.”

“My thoughts are with them and the Lakewood community during this trying time,” Menendez said. “By all accounts, Aaron is a devout and dedicated student, who traveled to Israel to enhance his knowledge and deepen his understanding of sacred Jewish texts. For yeshiva students like Aaron, there is no greater pursuit than to live and study in Jerusalem, while worshipping at Judaism’s holiest sites.”

“Ever since I was notified that Aaron went missing in Israel, my office has worked very closely with the State Department, U.S. Embassy and Consular officials in Israel, and the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C.,” the senator continued. “While investigators are pursuing every lead, we keep Aaron and his family in our thoughts and prayers.”

“I hold to hope that Aharon will be located and returned to his family safely,” Smith said. “Until that day comes, he and his family are in our prayers, and I will work with the State Department to use all resources available to find him and bring him to safety.”


Reporter Bashar Fahmi was working for U.S. broadcaster Alhurra when he went missing two years ago in Syria.

The beheading of American journalist James Foley — and the grisly video of the crime that showed ISIS terrorists threatening to next kill Miami native Steve Sotloff — raised a chilling question: How many other hostages might be in the clutches of the Islamic State?

The tragedy has raised awareness of the reporters who have gone missing in Syria, with their whereabouts and captors unknown.

Foley, who was taken in northwest Syria on Thanksgiving Day 2012, was widely believed to originally be in the hands of Bashar Assad’s forces before the Islamic State video was released. Sotloff was taken near the Turkish border on Aug. 4, 2013, and his appearance at the end of the Foley video was surprising to many. His family had kept the story dark, hoping a media blackout might give them better negotiations with his captors.

In a June letter smuggled out by a released prisoner, then dictated from memory to Foley’s mother, the war correspondent described sharing a cell with 17 others. He said they shared stories and played makeshift board games such as Risk from scraps found in the cell. A British expert on Syria studied images of the terrain in the video and determined the site of the execution to be in the hills south of Raqqa, capital of the caliphate.

The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates about 20 journalists are missing in Syria, but the number of Americans — particularly if other families are imposing a media blackout on abductions as Sotloff’s family did — is unknown. A U.S. official told CNN after the Foley murder that the number of Americans held by ISIS is believed to be several, including kidnapped aid workers.

Foley’s murder instantly piqued concern for Texas native Austin Tice, a Marine Corps veteran who wrote for McClatchy Newspapers, the Washington Post, and other outlets. Tice went missing Aug. 14, 2012.

On Sept. 26 2012, a video titled “Austin Tice still alive” was posted on a pro-Assad website, and raised alarms about the Syrian government’s potential role in his capture. Foreign policy experts and Syrian natives alike agreed that everything from the poor production quality to the costumes and chants seemed staged to look like jihadi yokels, calling out “God is great” while leading a blindfolded Tice up a hill. Tice stammers an Arabic prayer followed by, “Oh Jesus, oh Jesus.” The video ends abruptly.