The Yellow Ribbon Project

The Yellow Ribbon Project

Marine Vet Marks Third Birthday Behind Bars in Iran

July 28th, 2015 - 5:02 pm

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As Obama administration officials lobbied for the Iran nuclear deal before the House Foreign Affairs Committee today, the images of four Americans held in Iran stared back at them from the dais.

Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) taped photos of Marine vet Amir Hekmati, pastor Saeed Abedini, reporter Jason Rezaian, and retired FBI agent Bob Levinson underneath his microphone.

“I put their pictures here to remind you of them today,” Duncan told Secretary of State John Kerry. “I understand not using them as pawns in negotiations, but what should have been — what should have happened is they should have been released as a precondition before ever sitting down with Iran for anything.”

The gesture was even more poignant as Hekmati turned 32 years old today in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison — his third straight birthday behind bars, on the 1,429th day of his imprisonment.

Hekmati, a decorated Marine veteran who served in the Iraq war, was visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 when he was seized and sentenced on trumped-up espionage charges.

The Flagstaff, Ariz., native had been working as a contractor after leaving the military and planned to study economics at the University of Michigan.

“I still can’t believe you are worlds away, celebrating yet another birthday behind the walls of Evin prison. Today you turn 32. It is your third birthday unjustly imprisoned in Iran. We have watched you move from your late twenties and into your thirties behind those prison walls – away from celebration, away from your family, and away from home. The last time I saw you, you were 28 years old,” his sister, Sarah, wrote in an open letter to Amir today.

“…It is hard to not let this day be overrun by the grief I feel not having you around, especially when our family needs you so much right now, but I will choose this day to honor you instead. Amir, you are a man of integrity. Your loyalty and strength of character are not in your words, but in your actions. And for those of us lucky enough to call you son, brother, uncle, or friend, it is truly our honor to have you be a part of our lives. Happy 32nd Birthday, Bro. We will not stop until you are home.”

The Hekmatis’ congressman, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), said in a statement today that “too many birthdays and cherished moments with family have been missed as Amir continues to be caught up in a geopolitical struggle among nations.”

“There isn’t a day that goes by that a member of Congress doesn’t ask me about Amir’s condition and continued captivity. And it is impossible for any member of Congress to erase from our memory the fact that Iran continues to hold Amir and other innocent Americans,” Kildee said.

“I know that Congress will be watching Iran’s behavior very closely over the coming weeks, including if they take action to release Amir and the other innocent Americans it holds. Doing so would be a tangible demonstration to Congress and the world that Iran is serious about rejoining the global community.”

Kerry said at today’s hearing that his “last conversation with Foreign Minister Zarif and with the brother of the president was regarding the four people being held, four American citizens, and we have followed up on that conversation.”

“Since then, we are in direct conversations,” he added. “That’s all I’m going to say here today, that I hope that they will be returned to be with their families.”

Many lawmakers mentioned the U.S. hostages in their questions or remarks.

“Saeed Abedini, Hekmati, Rezaian, Levinson, when are they going to be free?” asked Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.).

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Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) dedicated part of his statement at today’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Iran nuclear deal to the Americans being held in Iran.

Secretary of State John Kerry had said earlier in the hearing that “we are going to continue to press Iran for information about the missing American, about the immediate release of Americans who’ve been unjustly held, and there isn’t a challenge in the entire region that we won’t push back against if Iran is involved in it.”

He didn’t mention them by name.

Rubio protested that “nothing in the deal holds Iran to account for human rights.”

“Quite the opposite. The Iranian regime is being rewarded for its atrocious human rights record,” the senator continued. “I know you said you brought up the American hostages in every negotiation, and I — I think we all thank you for that, but for the families of Americans who are missing or detained in Iran, such as that of my constituent, Robert Levinson, this deal brought no new information regarding their loved ones’ whereabouts.”

“This deal does nothing for Washington Post reporter, Jason Rezaian, whose brother Ali is with us in this room today. In fact, you personally met and negotiate with an Iranian official, who impressed on Jason’s case, lied to the world — he lied to the world by saying, we don’t jail people for their opinions.”

Rubio proceeded to say “this deal does nothing for the Marine Corps Sergeant Amir Hekmati, who dictated a letter from prison that said, quote, ‘Secretary Kerry sits politely with the Iranians shaking hands and offering large economic concessions to save them from economic meltdown,’ unquote, as Iran adds hostages.”

“Does nothing for Pastor Saeed Abedini, whose only crime was practicing his religion.”

Rubio concluded that “the only people this deal does anything for directly are the Iranian officials who want to continue to jail and execute their people, who hate Israel think to wipe the Jewish state and its people from the face of the planet, who want to spread mayhem throughout the Middle East, and continue to help Assad slaughter the Syrian people, and perhaps kill some Americans and Israelis while they’re at it.”

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Next month, the family of a Marine veteran will mark the grim milestone of his fourth year held by Iran — barring a miraculous change of heart by a regime that originally sentenced him to death for conspiracy to commit espionage.

Today brought another milestone in the tragic case of Amir Hekmati: President Obama finally, for the first time, said his name in public.

The family had been begging the White House just to say Amir’s name.

“He has already been mistreated, abused, and tortured,” his sister, Sarah Hekmati, wrote to White House counter-terrorism advisor Lisa Monaco in April. “Now the mental torture continues as he is made to feel that the country he put his life on the line for, the one he defended, and the president he voted for has left him behind and are not actively trying to secure his freedom.”

“Why has President Obama yet to utter the name Amir Hekmati? Why on days significant for Amir — Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, the anniversary of his death sentence, the anniversary of his imprisonment — President Obama cannot say the name Amir Hekmati out loud, but he can say it for Jason Rezaian and he can say it for Pastor Abedini? Why when we make a request is it ignored? Why am I forced to write this email to you AGAIN, the same subject AGAIN, the same plea AGAIN?”

Amir, who was seized by Iran in August 2011, was reportedly taunted by his Iranian prison guards after Obama only mentioned one hostage — the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian — at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

Obama mentioned the hostages by name today in his remarks to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Philadelphia, on the tail end of the section in his speech dedicated to promoting the Iran nuclear deal and slamming “shaky information” being disseminated about the agreement.

“Of course, even with this deal, we’ll continue to have serious differences with the Iranian government: its support of terrorism, proxies that destabilize the Middle East. So we can’t let them off the hook,” Obama said. “Our sanctions for Iran’s support for terrorism and its ballistic missile program and its human rights violations, those sanctions will remain in place, and we will stand with allies and partners, including Israel, to oppose Iran’s dangerous behavior.”

“We are not going to relent until we bring home our Americans who are unjustly detained in Iran. Journalist Jason Rezaian should be released. Pastor Saeed Abedini should be released. Amir Hekmati, a former sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps should be released. Iran needs to help us find Robert Levinson. These Americans need to be back home with their families.”

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Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote Secretary of State John Kerry today to remind him that “American citizens remain unjustly imprisoned by the Iranian regime even as you have finalized a nuclear deal with Iran,” and urging him “to use every tool at your disposal to secure their freedom” unconditionally.

“It is unacceptable that the United States has reached a final agreement with Iran while innocent Americans languish in the most brutal conditions of Iranian jail cells. I am profoundly disappointed that the agreement with Iran did not ensure the unconditional release of American citizens: Jason Rezaian, Pastor Saeed Abedini and Amir Hekmati, as well as any progress in obtaining information about the fate of my constituent former FBI agent Robert Levinson,” Rubio wrote.

“A day before you signed the nuclear deal with the Iranian regime, Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent, was subjected to a closed-door hearing with only his Iranian lawyer permitted in the courtroom. This hearing ended inconclusively and Mr. Rezaian remains in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison facing numerous trumped up charges including espionage.”

Abedini, Rubio reminded Kerry, has been imprisoned by the Iranians since September 2012. “In January 2013, Pastor Abedini received an eight year sentence in prison, his ‘crime’: practicing Christianity. He was charged with undermining Iranian national security by creating a network of Christian house churches and charged with attempting to convert Iranian Muslim youth to Christianity. He has been tortured, moved between some of Iran’s most severe prisons, and has been denied any right to appeal his case,” the senator said.

“Amir Hekmati, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, was arrested in Iran while visiting his family in August 2011. The Iranian government convicted Mr. Hekmati of espionage and sentenced him to death. Fortunately, his death sentence was overturned by an appeals court in March 2012. However, he was convicted of aiding a hostile nation and received a 10-year sentence.”

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President Obama got angry at his press conference today when CBS White House correspondent Major Garrett asked him why four Americans were left behind in the deal with Iran.

“As you well know there are four Americans in Iran, three held on trumped-up charges,” Garrett said, in referencing to prisoners Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini and Jason Rezaian, and Bob Levinson, who was taken by unidentified captors eight years ago.

“Can you tell the country, sir, why you are content, with all the fanfare around this deal, to leave the conscience of this nation, the strength of this nation unaccounted for in relation to these four Americans?” he asked.

Garrett also asked if the deal left the Joint Chiefs hanging out to dry in “last-minute capitulation” on ballistic missiles and conventional weapons.

“I’ve got to give you credit, Major, for how you craft those questions. The notion that I am content, as I celebrate, with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails?” Obama replied. “Major, that’s nonsense. And you should know better.”

“I’ve met with the families of some of those folks. Nobody’s content. And our diplomats and our teams are working diligently to try to get them out.”

Obama has never even publicly mentioned the name of Hekmati, a Marine veteran held for almost four years.

“Now, if the question is why we did not tie negotiations to their release, think about the logic that that creates. Suddenly Iran realizes, you know what? Maybe we can get additional concessions out of the Americans by holding these individuals. Makes it much more difficult for us to walk away if Iran somehow thinks that a nuclear deal is dependent in some fashion on the nuclear deal,” Obama continued.

“And by the way if we had walked away from the nuclear deal we’d still be pushing them just as hard to get these folks out. That’s why those issues are not connected. But we are working every single day to try to get them out.”

Hekmati, a decorated Marine veteran who served in the Iraq war, was visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 when he was seized and sentenced on trumped-up espionage charges.

Washington Post reporter Rezaian, who has reported from Tehran since 2008, was seized on July 22, 2014, in a raid on his home. He is facing espionage charges and had a closed-door hearing Monday while the final details of the agreement were being worked out.

Idaho pastor Abedini was convicted in January 2013 of establishing Christian house churches while in the country to set up a government-sanctioned orphanage.

Former FBI agent Levinson went missing off the coast of Iran eight years ago while working as a private investigator. Levinson’s family later received images of him in captivity, though the Iranian government has maintained they don’t know who is holding him. He is the longest-held U.S. hostage in history.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said Obama’s answer got to the core problem of an agreement with an “outlaw regime,” telling CNN that the release of the American hostages should have been a precondition to talks.

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As the final nuclear deal with Iran was announced with concessions and trade-offs, four names were noticeably absent from the administration’s lips: Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, Jason Rezaian, and Bob Levinson.

Families of the four had expressed trepidation in the weeks of negotiations leading up to the Vienna agreement. Would Iran feel generous in a new era of rapprochement? Or if Iran got what it wanted, would all leverage to gain the release of the American hostages could go out the window?

There was no sign today that Iran intended to release any of them.

“On the detained Americans, as I think most of you know every time we have a negotiation round with the Iranian’s we have on margin of those discussions about the detained Americans in Iran as well as our concerns about missing American, Robert Levinson. And both Secretary Kerry and myself, both separately and together, have had more than one conversation during the course of these — this negotiating round,” a senior administration official told reporters on a background call today.

“Secretary Kerry, in fact, had yet another conversation today with Minister [Javad] Zarif and their other people on the delegation that have close ties to other parts of the Iranian government with whom we speak as well. We believe very strongly that this is an opportunity for Iran to let the Americans come home.”

The official said they “certainly want to make sure that the treatment of Americans who are now being detained is the best until they get home, and that should be immediately.”

All of the Americans have suffered mistreatment including torture, malnourishment, and lack of medical care.

“And we are doing whatever we possibly can to get Americans home and we think that this is a moment where Iran has a really important opportunity to make a humanitarian gesture and bring the American home,” the official added of the world’s leading state sponsor of terror.

Hekmati, a decorated Marine veteran who served in the Iraq war, was visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 when he was seized and sentenced on trumped-up espionage charges.

Washington Post reporter Rezaian, who has reported from Tehran since 2008, was seized on July 22, 2014, in a raid on his home. He is facing espionage charges and had a closed-door hearing Monday while the final details of the agreement were being worked out.

Idaho pastor Abedini was convicted in January 2013 of establishing Christian house churches while in the country to set up a government-sanctioned orphanage.

Former FBI agent Levinson went missing off the coast of Iran eight years ago while working as a private investigator. Levinson’s family later received images of him in captivity, though the Iranian government has maintained they don’t know who is holding him. He is the longest-held U.S. hostage in history.

The Americans were not mentioned by President Obama nor John Kerry in their remarks.

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His book, 1,000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think, is available for pre-order on Amazon. The man who recommends that you buy it is none other than Salman Rushdie: “Raif Badawi’s is an important voice for all of us to hear.”

Yet the 31-year-old blogger, who ran the site Free Saudi Liberals, has been suffering “a slow death” behind bars in his native Saudi Arabia simply for exploring the themes of secularism and freedom in his writings.

Badawi was arrested in 2012 for “insulting Islam through electronic channels.” He was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison, a sentence upheld last month by the Saudi supreme court.

His wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children were granted political asylum in Canada. Fifty of the lashes were carried out in January, and international outcry — including from Prince Charles — as well as his poor health have led to periodic suspensions of the rest of the lashes, which have been scheduled to coincide with Friday prayers. “It’s effectively a slow death,” Haidar told the BBC. “…And since the ruling has been upheld, it’s probable — no, it’s certain — that he will be lashed.”

“Raif doesn’t speak much about his health, or his imprisonment, yet as his wife I could tell from his voice and his tone that he’s doing badly and he’s tired. I think he’s in a bad medical condition.”

Just what did he write to anger the Saudi rulers so much?

For one, he explored separation of church and state. “No religion at all has any connection to mankind’s civic progress. This is not a failing on the part of religion but rather that all religions represent a particular, precise spiritual relationship between the individual and the Creator.”

He poked fun at edicts from Saudi clerics including a 2011 preacher saying that astronomers should be punished for steering people away from Sharia. “This venerable preacher has drawn my attention to a truth that had been hidden from me and my dear readers – namely, the existence of the so-called ‘Sharia astronomer’. What a wonderful appellation! In my humble experience and in the course of my not inconsiderable research into the universe, its origins and the stars, I have never once come across this term. I advise NASA to abandon its telescopes and, instead, turn to our Sharia astronomers, whose keen vision and insight surpass the agency’s obsolete telescopes.”

He said Israel shouldn’t be replaced by a religious Palestinian state “whose main concern would be spreading the culture of death and ignorance among its people when we need modernisation and hope.”

“Secularism,” he argued in 2010, “is the practical solution to lift countries (including ours) out of the third world and into the first world.”

And when opponents of the mosque project near Ground Zero were protesting in New York, he sided against the project.

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As the families of U.S. hostages currently held in Iran have struggled for years to rally the determination to bring their loved ones home, newly released emails from the former secretary of State reveal the infuriating truth that those with connections get their case raised to the top.

In 2009, Iason Athanasiadis was covering the protests of the disputed election win of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over Mir-Hossein Mousavi for the Washington Times. The Greek citizen was detained by Iranian authorities on June 17, 2009, as he tried to fly out of the country.

Athanasiadis was thrown in Evin prison and released after three weeks of interrogation, his captors explaining they had “unprecedentedly full jails” from the Green Revolution.

On June 23, six days after the reporter was taken into custody, Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Clinton, fired off an email to Hillary Clinton, according to a new batch of correspondence released by the State Department last night.

“Dear Hillary, John Solomon, Exec Editor of Washington Times and a close personal friend (and always fair to us as AP reporter and later Wash Post reporter), has called about a Wash Times reporter who is being held by Iranians. He says Greeks have good relations and he believes they are trying to help. He believes you are meeting with Greek Foreign Minister tomorrow and hopes you can raise the issue with him – he may already know something about it. Any information he knows would help family. Hope you can do this – And hope your elbow is better – Best wishes, Lanny.”

Clinton forwarded the email to Jake Sullivan, a deputy policy director on Hillary’s 2008 presidential campaign who went on to serve as her deputy chief of staff at the State Department and then director of policy planning. Sullivan, now a visiting lecturer at Yale, also was a national security adviser to Vice President Biden until last year.

Sullivan “spent months secretly laying the groundwork” for the current Iran nuclear negotiations and is believed to be Clinton’s pick for national security advisor.

“Do you know anything about this?” Clinton asked Sullivan two days after Davis’ email.

“Yes. We had Jim raise this with the Greek ambassador yesterday, who told him that they were aware of the situation and would come back with a report when Jim got to Corfu,” Sullivan responded.

“Would you pis give Lanny a report and do you know who is keeping Solomon informed?” Clinton asked, referencing the Washington Times editor.

“I will. Philippe is keeping Solomon informed — he passed along a readout of Jim’s conversation yesterday,” Sullivan said.

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President Obama was confronted directly about the U.S. hostages in Iran today as the deadline of the P5+1 nuclear talks has been extended to July 7.

At a press conference with visiting Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Obama was asked what he would say to the families of Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, Jason Rezaian and Bob Levinson if he went ahead and signed an agreement with Tehran without the release of U.S. hostages.

Amir Hekmati, a decorated Marine veteran who served in the Iraq war, was visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 when he was seized and sentenced on trumped-up espionage charges.

Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who has reported from Tehran since 2008, was seized on July 22, 2014, in a raid on his home. He is facing espionage charges.

Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini was convicted in January 2013 of establishing Christian house churches while in the country to set up a government-sanctioned orphanage.

Former FBI agent Bob Levinson went missing off the coast of Iran eight years ago while working as a private investigator. Levinson’s family later received images of him in captivity, though the Iranian government has maintained they don’t know who is holding him. He is the longest-held U.S. hostage in history.

“With respect to U.S. citizens, U.S. persons who were held in Iran, this is something that we continue to push hard on, irrespective of the nuclear deal. It’s a top priority for us to make sure that our people are treated fairly,” Obama said.

“And on the face of it, in the case of these individuals who’ve been held, they have not been and they are not being afforded the basic due process and legal rights that we afford visitors to our country. So we’re deeply concerned about it. We spend a lot of time pushing on it and we will continue to do so.”

The U.S. hostages have not just faced a lack of hospitality in Iran but torture, malnourishment, and a lack of medical care for injuries and illnesses suffered while in custody.

Obama added “there’s no lessening of the sense of urgency.”

“So when I talk to the families, we remind them of the fact that that is a mission that will continue and has been worked on consistently throughout their captivity,” he said.

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The State Department’s new Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014 essentially supports Iran’s faulty reasoning for why the U.S. has no jurisdiction over the case of an American hostage.

The Iran section of the report also doesn’t refer to the U.S. hostages by name, though it names some Iranians who have likewise fallen victim to Iran’s judicial system.

“A dual citizen Christian pastor has been detained in Iran since September 2012 on charges related to his religious beliefs. According to public statements by the pastor’s family and international groups, he was not provided adequate medical treatment and his health further deteriorated in 2014,” the report says of Saeed Abedini.

“A dual citizen held in Evin Prison since 2011 and whose ‘confession’ was broadcast by state media during the same year remained in prison at year’s end. According to public statements from his family, he learned in April 2014 that a court had tried him and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. He has been denied access to consular visitation,” the report says of Amir Hekmati.

Hekmati, a decorated Marine veteran who served in the Iraq war, was born in the United States and is considered a dual citizen only by Iranian law as his father was born in Iran. He was visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 when he was seized and sentenced on trumped-up espionage charges.

As he knew Iran has been using this as a reason to tell the U.S. government they have no jurisdiction over the case, in March Hekmati wrote to the Iranian Interest Section in Washington, D.C., to make clear he is 100 percent American and renounce his Iranian citizenship.

“The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, Mrs. Afkham, has stated that there are no Americans in Iran; however, it is precisely for the reason that I am American that I have been taken hostage by the Ministry of Intelligence and used as a political bargaining tool. Having been born in the US and having spent my entire life there, my citizenship status is clear,” he wrote.

“It has become very clear to me that those responsible view Iranian-Americans not as citizens or even human beings, but as bargaining chips and tools for propaganda. Considering how little value the Ministry of Intelligence places on my Iranian citizenship and passport, I, too, place little value on them and inform you, effective immediately, that I formally renounce my Iranian citizenship and passport,” the Marine continued.

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