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The Yellow Ribbon Project

Seven-Month Extension for Iran, Four Americans Who Need to Come Home

November 25th, 2014 - 6:39 pm
iranthree

Robert Levinson in captivity, Amir Hekmati, and Saeed Abedini

Secretary of State John Kerry closed out the last round of nuclear talks in Vienna with a seven-month extension for Iran and assertions that Tehran is a viable negotiating partner that has met its commitments.

“We want to terminate the sanctions. Yes, we want to terminate the sanctions which were put in place to get us to these negotiations and ultimately to be able to bring about a deal,” Kerry told reporters before flying out of Austria.

“And I would say to those who are skeptical, those who wonder whether we should rush ahead down a different course, I believe the United States and our partners have earned the benefit of the doubt at this point,” Kerry continued. “Many were quick to say that the Joint Plan of Action would be violated; it wouldn’t hold up, it would be shredded. Many said that Iran would not hold up its end of the bargain. Many said that the sanctions regime would collapse. But guess what? The interim agreement wasn’t violated.”

“Iran has held up its end of the bargain.”

Yet Iran still holds four Americans.

Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent and father of seven, was working as a private detective on a cigarette smuggling case on Kish Island, an Iranian resort port in the Persian Gulf with looser entrance requirements, when he disappeared on March 8, 2007. Later reports indicated he was contracting for the CIA.

A year ago he became the longest held U.S. hostage in history, passing Terry Anderson’s 2,454 days in captivity at the hands of Hezbollah before being freed in 1991.

In January, his wife, Christine Levinson, released photos the family had received from his captors nearly two years earlier. She did so because “there isn’t any pressure on Iran to resolve this.”

Flagstaff, Ariz., native and Marine veteran 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, retried and sentenced to 10 years behind bars for “collaborating” with the U.S. government.

In March, his mother, Behnaz Hekmati, wrote to President Obama for help, noting that her family “is constantly reminded” by government officials that her son’s case “is being raised, but there has been no real progress.”

“Amir was taken from me nearly three years ago, falsely accused of being a spy and sentenced to death. That sentence was later overturned due to a lack of evidence, yet still he languishes. This is a historic time for Iran and the United States,” she wrote. “I plead that you do not forget Amir, his service, his beautiful smile and his zeal for life.”

This September, Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini marked two years behind bars in Iran.

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kassig

After a third American was beheaded by ISIS, the Obama administration confirms it’s reviewing its policy on bargaining for hostages.

But exactly what could change as far as ransoms or other concessions granted in exchange for Americans is extremely vague at this point.

Peter Kassig, a former U.S. Army Ranger turned humanitarian aid worker, was kidnapped in Raqqa in October 2013. The 26-year-old Indiana native did not deliver any scripted text before the camera, such as the statements journalists James Foley and Steve Sotloff were forced to read.

Some believe he was living by the Ranger creed up until the end: “Surrender is not a Ranger word… under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.” There’s also speculation that he may have been killed in an airstrike before the video was released, or fought back against his execution thus resulting in an edited video release. His severed head was displayed but not his body.

ISIS has executed U.S. and British hostages whose countries have a longstanding policy of not negotiating with terrorists. Other European countries have gotten hostages back in exchange for ransom payouts; the Treasury Department said last month that ISIS had raked in about $20 million this year in ransoms. Though the administration traded five senior Taliban prisoners for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in May, Foley’s mother said she was threatened with prosecution if she tried to raise funds for her son’s ransom.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said today that President Obama ordered a review of the U.S. hostage policy “over the summer.”

“Given sort of the extraordinary nature of some of the hostage takings that we’ve seen this year, the president felt it was warranted to direct the relevant departments and agencies who have traditionally been involved in assisting families as they try to recover the safe return of their family members,” Earnest said.

The Pentagon, State Department, FBI and intelligence community have undertaken the review, he said.

“The one thing that I do want to make clear, though, is, this review does not include a reconsideration about longstanding policy of the United States government that ransoms should not be paid to terrorist organizations that are holding hostages. But this is obviously an issue that the president takes very seriously. We have long said, and we continue to take the view, that significant resources have in the past been dedicated to trying to ensure the safe return of American citizens who hare being held hostage overseas,” Earnest said.

“And there was an incident earlier this summer where the president did order a rather remarkable military effort — principally military effort — to recover some American citizens who were being held hostage in Syria. That was a mission — a mission that was successfully executed, but it did not successfully result in the safe return of the hostages.”

It was a reference to the White House’s claim after Foley’s shocking murder that U.S. forces attempted an early summer rescue of American hostages in Syria, something Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called “a flawless operation” except for the fact “the hostages were not there.”

Earnest said he didn’t know when the review will be concluded, “but when it has been, I’m sure we’ll let you know about it.”

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In this photo released by the North Korean government, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lands in Pyongyang.

Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller are back on U.S. soil after harrowing detentions in the hands of North Korea, just a couple of weeks after Pyongyang released tourist Jeffrey Fowle.

Fowle, who was seized in April and sentenced to six years of hard labor, admitted leaving a Bible in a restaurant so one of North Korea’s oppressed Christians could find it. Miller, also seized in April, 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.

Bae, who 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, had been held by North Korea for two years. The Christian missionary has been suffering health crises due to the hard labor and poor conditions in prison.

Miller and Bae landed at McChord Field in Washington state on Saturday night.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was the U.S. envoy to go to Pyongyang, hand-delivering a letter that the North claimed included an “earnest apology” from President Obama.

A senior administration official told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Asia today that Clapper’s trip “was not to pursue any diplomatic opening,” and they specifically chose the national security chief to make the trip because he’s not a diplomat.

The official said North Korea requested several weeks ago that a high-level official come to Pyongyang if America wanted its citizens back. Clapper spent about a day in the country and did not meet with Kim Jong-il, the official added.

“This was a very unique opportunity to bring home two Americans,” the official said.

In South Korean media, the sudden release was tied to Democrats’ defeat in midterm elections last Tuesday.

“Obama seems to have needed to show diplomatic fruit in relations with North Korea because he has suffered defeat in the recent elections,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, told the Korea Times.

A high-ranking official at South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the paper that the release should not mean a softening in tone against Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons.

For more than a year, the North has been holding South Korean Baptist missionary Kim Jung-wook, who was sentenced to hard labor for the rest of his life. Kim is accused of setting up underground churches and espionage.

“We call on the North to let go of missionary Kim as soon as possible, and to respond positively to the South’s calls for inter-Korean humanitarian issues, including family reunions,” an official told the Korea Times.

Bae told reporters that he’s “recovering” from the ordeal and thanked the U.S. government as well as everyone who called for his release.

“I just want to say thank you all for supporting me and lifting me up and not forgetting,” he said.

Miller did not address the media.

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tahmooressi

U.S. Marine Reserve Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi will be coming home after a judge ordered today that he be released from a Mexican prison.

Tahmooressi was arrested at the border the night of March 31 and was 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.

Tahmooressi says he crossed the border by accident due to confusing signs that caused him to miss the last exit in the U.S. His family demanded his return to the States to receive treatment for PTSD.

Many politicians lobbied the White House and State Department to pressure Mexico to release Tahmooressi, but in the end it was former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) who secured his release.

“Richardson has been in the San Diego/Tijuana area this week advocating for Andrew’s release and will escort Andrew and his mother back home,” the Richardson Center for Global Engagement said in a statement, adding that they would return to Florida on a private plane “late in the day.”

Richardson’s foundation “has worked closely on this case and has provided the chartered flight that will bring Andrew home.”

“I feel that the Baja California corrections officers and the Mexican government have been very helpful. I respect Mexico’s judicial process, and I am pleased that Andrew was released today and will return home to his family,” Richardson said in a statement.

Richardson will also ask Congress “to fund programs that allow veterans, especially those returning from combat, a period of time to decompress before returning to civilian life.”

The governor stressed that it was a bipartisan effort, and singled out House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) for “joining forces on this effort,” as well as “the thousands of Andrew’s supporters that have diligently advocated for his release namely via social media; and special thanks to Andrew’s mother, Jill, who has truly quarterbacked the efforts to bring her son home.”

Richardson also thanked Montel Williams, who testified before Congress alongside Tahmooressi’s mother, “for his fierce advocacy for Andrew and all veterans with PTSD.”

“The Center’s Senior Mexican Advisor, Juan Massey and Jonathan Franks of Lucid PR have worked diligently with Mexican officials over the past few months advocating for the safe return of Sgt. Tahmooressi; they will also be on the flight today with Andrew. Today’s charter flight has been provided by the generosity of Johnny and Marty Cope of New Mexico,” the governor’s foundation said.

Richardson “advocated early on with Mexican leaders for a humanitarian release based on Andrew’s PTSD, an argument that was successfully implemented by his legal defense team to persuade the judge to dismiss the case in a court of law.”

Royce called it ”great, but overdue, news.”

“I am pleased that both Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam and the judge on the case recognize that Sgt. Tahmooressi did not intend to violate Mexican law, and that his combat-related PTSD should be treated by specialists in the United States,” the chairman continued.

“Andrew’s legal ordeal is over, and now he can focus on getting well and reaching his high potential.”

Salmon said he was “truly overjoyed” by the news.

“During my last visit with Andrew in a Mexican prison, I told him the next time I saw him would be during his release to America; I am grateful that I will be able to keep that promise and be with him and Mrs. Tahmooressi as he returns to the United States tonight,” he said.

The congressman thanked Mexico’s attorney general for “displaying compassion for Sergeant Tahmooressi’s medical condition.” He also thanked Richardson “for all his tireless efforts in aiding Andrew’s release.”

Jill Tahmooressi told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee last month that her son “received his crisis intake, positive screen for post-traumatic stress disorder” on March 12.

“At the time, he was ordered the cognitive therapy group therapy, the veteran group therapy,” Mrs. Tahmooressi testified. “He attended on March 20th. And, indeed, there is a third medical record in his Veterans Administration record from the morning, March 31st, that famous day when, at 10:30, he pulled out of a parking lot on the California side, San Ysidro.”

“Andrew is despondent and desperate to return to the United States. His PTSD treatment plan has been aborted. It was aborted on April 1st, as Mexico does not have the ability to provide combat-related PTSD expressive group therapy, as recognized here.”

The Marine told CNN that he attempted suicide by stabbing his neck with a broken light bulb when held at the La Mesa penitentiary in Tijuana. Tahmooressi said he was abused in prison, which Mexican authorities deny.

Tahmooressi told Fox’s Greta van Susteren in a May 30 interview that tried to flee the Tecate prison when he was able to scale a number of fences and run across rooftops, making it to the gate where he was shot at by a tower guard. He then surrendered.

UPDATE 12:30 a.m. EST:

 

Jeffrey Fowle

A month after sentencing one American to six years of hard labor, North Korea released another American tourist who was expected to face charges.

“We can confirm that Jeffrey Fowle has been allowed to depart the DPRK and is on his way home to re-join his family,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement. “We welcome the DPRK’s decision to release him.”

Fowle, 56, of Miamisburg, Ohio, was seized April 29 after entering the country as a tourist and acting “in violation of the DPRK law, contrary to the purpose of tourism during his stay,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported on June 6.

His family’s lawyer said in a statement this summer that the street maintenance worker “loves to travel and loves the adventure of experiencing different cultures and seeing new places.”

Reports have indicated that Fowle was arrested after a Bible was discovered in his hotel room.

In addition to Bakersfield resident Matthew Miller, arrested April 10 “for his rash behavior in the course of going through formalities for entry into the DPRK to tour it,” Pyongyang still holds Washington state resident Kenneth Bae, a devout Christian sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor last year.

Bae 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.

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.

“While this is a positive decision by the DPRK, we remain focused on the continued detention of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller and again call on the DPRK to immediately release them,” Harf said. “The U.S. Government will continue to work actively on their cases.”

“We thank the Government of Sweden for the tireless efforts of the Embassy of Sweden in Pyongyang, which acts as our Protecting Power in the DPRK.”

Harf added that “as a condition of his release, the DPRK authorities asked the United States Government to transport Mr. Fowle out of the country.”

“The Department of Defense was able to provide transportation for Mr. Fowle in the time frame specified by the DPRK,” she said. “We will provide additional details about Mr. Fowle’s return home as we are able to do so.”

Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters that the U.S. government sent a DoD aircraft flown by military personnel based out of Hawaii to pick up Fowle.

“What I can tell you is that, at the request of the State Department, we did provide an aircraft to effect the transportation of Mr. Fowle out of North Korea,” Kirby said.

Paul Mooney 29APR10 NS FAMILY2  IMG_9076.jpg

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.”

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abedini

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.

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hekmati-free-amir

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.

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tahmooressi1

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.”

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kcnamiller

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.

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