The Yellow Ribbon Project

The Yellow Ribbon Project

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Amir Hekmati (right), his father, Ali, and his brother-in-law Ramy Kurdi

Aug. 29 will mark four years since U.S. Marine veteran Amir Hekmati was seized while visiting relatives in his parents’ country of origin, Iran.

In an audio recording delivered in a phone call from Evin prison, Amir tells all of his supporters “how thankful my family and I are for your support over the last four years”:

The list of people I want to thank is far too long to be included here, but had it not been for all of your support, it is possible that the outrageous death sentence I was given in 2011 would have been carried out. I’m convinced the only reason I’m alive and allowed to use the prison phone is your support and international outcry of my false imprisonment. My captors would have much preferred to keep my voice from being heard and have me remain in solitary confinement where I was buried away in miserable conditions for 18 months, where I witnessed many lose their health and sanity, where I was told I would be executed by hanging with no one to reach out to, and where I was not allowed even one minute to phone my father who was and still is fighting for his life with brain cancer.

However, due to your help, my father now hears me loud and clear and so do all of you. My morale has never faltered after all these years because I know I am not alone. So if I am alive and have any privileges here, and if my family is able to cope with his better, it is because of your support and I will always be grateful. Even those of you who have simply posted a comment voicing your support or concern or you may not think it has had a direct impact, collectively, you prevented further mistreatment by my Iranian captors and have brought me closer to being reunited with my family. Your words have reached me and have kept my head held high.

Thank you and God bless,
Amir Hekmati

The State Department last mentioned Amir a week ago, when press secretary John Kirby was asked about the latest court appearance of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian.

“We continue to call for his immediate release, as well as that of Saeed Abedini and Amir Hekmati, and we continue to call for Iran to work with us to locate Robert Levinson so that all can be returned to their families,” Kirby said.

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The congressman of a former FBI agent kidnapped in Iran more than eight years ago said today that he will oppose the nuclear deal with regime.

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, announced his decision the week after another congressman of an Iran hostage, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), said he’d back the deal. Kildee represents the district of Amir Hekmati, a Marine veteran thrown in Evin prison by the Iranian government in 2011.

Deutch wrote in a Sun-Sentinel op-ed that in the 10 years since he first ran for public office he’s devoted himself “to strengthening our national security.”

“I believe we’re stronger when we speak loudly and unapologetically for human rights; when we stand with our allies against common threats like terrorism, radicalization, and poverty; and when we unite to prevent the world’s most dangerous regimes from acquiring the world’s deadliest weapons,” he said.

“…Working across the aisle, I helped pass laws exposing business dealings in Iran, cracking down on Iranian human rights abusers, and applying crippling sanctions to Iran’s oil and gas industries.”

Deutch stressed that assessing the Iran deal “is not a responsibility I take lightly, especially with four Americans, including my constituent Bob Levinson, currently held in Iran.”

Levinson went missing off the coast of Iran in 2007 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.

“Many of my colleagues are trying to turn this vote into a partisan fight. They should stop. People of good faith can disagree honestly. I have spent weeks reviewing this agreement in classified intelligence briefings, meetings with Administration officials and ambassadors from Europe and the Middle East, and discussions with security and nuclear experts. I’ve also heard from many, many constituents about this deal’s implications for the security of the U.S. and our allies, including Israel, whose very existence is threatened by Iran,” Deutch continued.

“Too many issues I have long raised as essential to any nuclear deal with Iran are not adequately addressed in this agreement. I will vote against it when Congress reconvenes in September.”

Deutch noted that “there are different predictions about what will happen if Congress rejects this deal.”

“But the consequences of approving it aren’t up for debate,” he said. “Opening Iran up to foreign investment, increasing its oil exports, and unfreezing over $100 billion in assets means more money for Hamas for building terror tunnels in Gaza, more weapons for Hezbollah in Lebanon, more slaughter in Syria, and more violence worldwide.”

“After a decade in public life working to stop Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons, I cannot support a deal giving Iran billions of dollars in sanctions relief – in return for letting it maintain an advanced nuclear program and the infrastructure of a threshold nuclear state.”

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), who represents the district of imprisoned Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, said July 14 that he expects “to take full advantage of the 60-day review period before deciding how to vote on this important matter.”

Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), who represents imprisoned pastor Saeed Abedini, is likely to vote against it.

“The Iranian government claims to want constructive engagement with the world. Yet, Iran refuses to free Boise Pastor Saeed Abedini, imprisoned since 2012,” Labrador said in a mid-July statement.

“Last month the House unanimously called for the release of the U.S. citizens held in Iran, as well as information on any Americans who have disappeared. That these men remain captive is deeply disturbing and raises foundational questions of trust that should have been addressed before striking any deal with Iran.”

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The congressman who represents a Flint, Mich., Marine veteran held by Iran for nearly four years said he’s weighed the P5+1 nuclear deal and has decided to vote in favor of it.

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) has been a vocal advocate for his constituent, Amir Hekmati, and three other Americans held or missing in Iran: pastor Saeed Abedini, journalist Jason Rezaian, and retired FBI agent Bob Levinson.

Amir’s 32nd birthday was this week — the third he’s marked behind the bars of Evin prison — and Kildee noted Tuesday that “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.”

Today, Kildee said in a statement that “after careful review and consultation, I will support the nuclear agreement with Iran.”

“I have ultimately determined it will make the world a safer place and is in the best interest of the U.S., our allies, and the global community. Ultimately, this deal prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. And if Iran cheats, we will know it,” the congressman said. “How to deal with the threat that Iran represents is a very difficult question, and there is no perfect answer.”

Kildee said that since the agreement was announced he’s “studied it in detail, attended classified briefings on key provisions, and met with the president, administration officials, independent experts, and people I represent.” President Obama hosted House Democrats at the White House yesterday for a closed-door meeting.

“Through this process, I have judged the agreement on its merits while asking what other alternatives are available to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And the fact remains that there is simply no viable alternative to this agreement that stops Iran from getting this dangerous weapon,” he said.

“Some have suggested that the fate of Amir Hekmati and the other innocent American political prisoners held in Iran be tied to the nuclear deal. However, I do not support this approach. We never want to exchange the freedom of innocent Americans for something that presumably makes the world a less safe place. Amir himself has said that he does not want his release to be traded for such concessions. Simply, he is innocent, has committed no crime, and Iran needs to unilaterally release him.”

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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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