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The Yellow Ribbon Project

Marines Start Hunger Strikes in Solidarity with Amir Hekmati

December 18th, 2014 - 3:25 pm

amirbike

In a letter to President Obama this week, Marine veteran Amir Hekmati asked for the commander in chief’s help “to end the nightmare I have been living” — more than three years in Iran’s notorious Evin prison on trumped-on espionage accusations.

“I am a son, a brother, an uncle and a man. I am an American who deserves basic human rights and his freedom,” Amir wrote. “Instead, I feel as if I have been left behind.”

A family spokesperson confirmed that Amir had started a hunger strike after his lawyer’s latest attempts to free the Marine failed.

Soon after the story broke, Amir’s Marine brothers began volunteering to fast in solidarity.

A group of Marines standing with Amir issued a press release today, including to the online Free Amir Hekmati campaign, detailing how Marines who served with Amir and others have begun rolling 24-hour hunger strikes.

The movement originated with a Facebook group of Marines who had been brought together by another Marine’s suicide. “Amir Hekmati’s absence from this group was painfully evident,
as many members served with him, and support for his hunger strike sparked nearly
overnight,” said the release.

In less than a day, enough volunteers had pledged daylong strikes booked solid through February. In spreading the campaign across social media, the goal is at least 3,000 hunger strikers by Christmas.

“Marines don’t leave anyone behind, and Amir has been left for more than three years in Iranian captivity,” said Nick Kaywork, a Marine veteran taking part in the hunger strike. “We can’t stand by and let another day pass quietly while he sits in prison.”

A native of Flagstaff, Ariz., and resident of Flint, Mich., Amir served in the Iraq War and was honorably discharged as a sergeant in 2005. He was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War of Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and Sea Service Deployment Ribbon.

The 31-year-old was seized by Iranian authorities on a 2011 trip to visit extended family, before he was due to start economics studies at the University of Michigan.

Earlier this year, his sister Sarah told PJM how proud Amir is of his military service, noting how he would boast about making it through boot camp while a lot of guys got weeded out during the grueling 13-week process.

“He always was so proud as a first-generation American to be able to feel like he was contributing to his country,” she said, adding that his time in the Corps and tour of duty “broadened his horizons” as he served as a linguistic bridge between U.S. and Iraqi officials. “He really felt like he had an important role and he really valued it.”

“He’s very proud of his service — the license plate on the back of his car says ‘Marine,’” she added, noting he was often clad in Marines T-shirts.

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abedini

Imprisoned Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini sent a Christmas missive from his jail cell in Iran, saying his guards have threatened him when he posted a paper cross on the wall.

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.

The letter, sent to a family member, was released by the American Center for Law and Justice, which is representing the Abedini family.

The ACLJ’s Jordan Sekulow said Abdeini “remains in need of medical care, suffering from increased pain from internal injuries sustained as a result of multiple prison beatings throughout the course of more than two years in a harsh Iranian prison.” A relative was able to visit him last week for the first time in over a month.

Writes Abedini:

Rajai Shahr Prison 2014

Merry Christmas!

These days are very cold here. My small space beside the window is without glass making most nights unbearable to sleep. The treatment by fellow prisoners is also quite cold and at times hostile. Some of my fellow prisoners don’t like me because I am a convert and a pastor. They look at me with shame as someone who has betrayed his former religion. The guards can’t even stand the paper cross that I have made and hung next to me as a sign of my faith and in anticipation of celebrating my Savior’s birth. They have threatened me and forced me to remove it. This is the first Christmas that I am completely without my family; all of my family is presently outside of the country. These conditions have made this upcoming Christmas season very hard, cold and shattering for me. It appears that I am alone with no one left beside me.

These cold and brittle conditions have made me wonder why God chose the hardest time of the year to become flesh and why He came to the earth in the weakest human condition (as a baby). Why did God choose the hardest place to be born in the cold weather? Why did God choose to be born in a manger in a stable, which is very cold, filthy and unsanitary with an unpleasant smell? Why did the birth have to be in such a way that it was not only hard physically, but also socially? It must have brought such shame for Mary and her fiancé that she was pregnant before marriage in the religious society of that time.

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Grossrally

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said President Obama has “vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government” by swapping for the release of longtime U.S. hostage Alan Gross.

USAID subcontractor Alan Gross recently marked the fifth anniversary of his arrest in Cuba.

Gross had wrapped up work on a project to increase Internet access and connectivity at Cuban synagogues when he was seized the night before he was to return home. He spent 14 months behind bars before any charges were filed, then in March 2011 was quickly tried and convicted of “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state” for distributing cell phones and other communications equipment as part of the USAID project.

He was sentenced to 15 years behind bars. Earlier this year he completed a nine-day hunger strike, telling his attorney in May that his 65th birthday would be the last he spends in prison, one way or another.

In June, his wife Judy Gross pleaded with President Obama “to do everything in his power to end this nightmare and bring Alan home from Cuba now.”

The three remaining members of the Cuban five were negotiated for what senior administration officials said was a U.S. intelligence asset who had been held by Cuba for 20 years; they said they asset will not be identified. They said Gross was separately release on “humanitarian grounds.”

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who has warned of Obama’s unilateral action to loosen restrictions on Cuba, isn’t buying it.

“Let’s be clear, this was not a ‘humanitarian’ act by the Castro regime,” Menendez said. “It was a swap of convicted spies for an innocent American.”

The chairman nonetheless called it ”a moment of profound relief for Alan Gross and his family.”

“Mr. Gross’ physical and mental health has declined severely as a result of his five-year imprisonment under difficult conditions. He should have been released immediately and unconditionally five years ago. He committed no crime and was simply working to provide internet access to Cuba’s small Jewish community. His imprisonment was cruel and arbitrary, but consistent with the behavior of the Cuban regime,” Menendez said.

“There is no equivalence between an international aid worker and convicted spies who were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage against our nation. One spy was also convicted of conspiracy to murder for his role in the 1996 tragedy in which the Cuban military shot down two U.S. civilian planes, killing several American citizens. My heart goes out to the American families that lost love ones on that fateful day.”

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amirmom

A U.S. Marine veteran held in Iran’s Evin prison for 1,206 days has issued a personal plea to President Obama to “help end the nightmare I have been living.”

Amir Hekmati was arrested in 2011 while visiting extended family in the Islamic Republic. 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 sergeant who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom is not an American citizen.

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.

In late September, Amir’s sister Sarah and brother-in-law Ramy went to the United Nations to seek help from the P5+1 partners negotiating with Iran on a nuclear deal.

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.”

Amir was recently 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. Here, he’s been able to call home about every other day.

In this way, he was able to dictate the letter to Obama.

“As you are well aware, I have been detained in Evin Prison in Iran for more than three years. In fact, my mother informs me that as of today, December 15, 2014, it has been more than 1,200 days. One-thousand and two-hundred days, which have included solitary confinement and mistreatment. I remain confined without a fair trial and no idea or understanding of what is to be my fate,” Amir wrote.

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lukesomers

Luke Somers

In a video released Wednesday by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi threatened to kill an American photojournalist by the end of the week if the U.S. government didn’t meet a list of demands.

AQAP was incensed by the late November rescue attempt by U.S. and Yemeni forces to rescue 33-year-old Luke Somers, kidnapped in Sana’a in September 2013.

According to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, President Obama authorized another rescue mission by U.S. Special Operations Forces, which was launched Friday.

“There were compelling reasons to believe Mr. Somers’ life was in imminent danger,” Hagel said in a statement this morning. “Both Mr. Somers and a second non-U.S. citizen hostage were murdered by the AQAP terrorists during the course of the operation. On behalf of the men and women of the U.S. armed forces, I extend our condolences, thoughts, and prayers to their families and loved ones.”

That “non-U.S. citizen hostage” was South African Pierre Korkie, who was teaching in Yemen when he was kidnapped with his wife, Yolande, in May 2013. The Gift of the Givers, a South African NGO that provides disaster relief, negotiated Yolande’s release in January.

According to South Africa’s News24, Gift of the Givers had negotiated Pierre Korkie’s release and he was due to be set free on Sunday.

Gift of the Givers founder Imtiaz Sooliman told the news channel that the agreement for his release was reached on Nov. 26. ”It is even more tragic that the words we used in a conversation with Yolande at 05:59am this morning was ‘the wait is almost over’,” Sooliman told the network. ”Alas, the events of this morning put an end to 11 months of unlimited attempts to bring Pierre home safely.”

AQAP claims it killed the hostages before leaving the location of the raid. No U.S. troops were injured.
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Luke-Somers

The Pentagon acknowledged today that it launched an unsuccessful rescue mission to bring back a kidnapped American journalist eight days before al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula released a video threatening his life.

Luke Somers, 33, was working as a photojournalist for news outlets including the BBC when he disappeared in Sana’a in September 2013.

Wednesday’s video was the first time AQAP’s media arm, Al-Malahem Media Foundation, has released images of Somers.

“Basically, I’m looking for any help that can get me out of this situation,” Somers says in the video, in which he wears a purple dress shirt against a park-like background. “I am certain that my life is in danger.”

AQAP official Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi reads a statement in the video in a studio setting, threatening to kill Somers by the end of the week unless America meets a list of demands — something he doesn’t detail but says the U.S. government knows about.

Somers’ family issued a video (below) stressing they had no prior knowledge of the rescue attempt and pleading with Luke’s captors to not harm him.

“Please show mercy and give us an opportunity to see our Luke again,” his mother asks. “He is all that we have.”

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alangrossjudy

USAID subcontractor Alan Gross today marked the fifth anniversary of his arrest in Cuba.

He’s been behind bars in the communist regime for 1,826 days.

The 65-year-old Maryland resident’s health has deteriorated in Cuban custody, including the loss of more than 100 pounds and severe degenerative arthritis. “Alan has withdrawn, and he told me that his life in prison is not a life worth living,” Scott Gilbert, Gross’s attorney, said in August. “He’s confined to a small cell for 24 hours a day. He’s lost most of the vision in his right eye. His hips are failing and he can barely walk.”

His wife, Judy Gross, said in a heart-wrenching statement today, “I am afraid that we are at the end.”

“Enough is enough. My husband has paid a terrible price for serving his country and community,” she said. “…After five years of literally wasting away, Alan is done. It is time for President Obama to bring Alan back to the United States now; otherwise it will be too late.”

Gross had wrapped up work on a project to increase Internet access and connectivity at Cuban synagogues when he was seized the night before he was to return home. He spent 14 months behind bars before any charges were filed, then in March 2011 was quickly tried and convicted of “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state” for distributing cell phones and other communications equipment as part of the USAID project.

He was sentenced to 15 years behind bars. Earlier this year he completed a nine-day hunger strike, telling his attorney in May that his 65th birthday would be the last he spends in prison, one way or another.

In June, Judy Gross pleaded with President Obama “to do everything in his power to end this nightmare and bring Alan home from Cuba now.”

“If we can trade five members of the Taliban to bring home one American soldier, surely we can figure out a path forward to bring home one American citizen from a Cuban prison,” she said in reference to the Bowe Bergdahl swap.

In July, Alan Gross told his wife and daughter goodbye, refusing more visits from them — and from the U.S. government representative in Havana — while he’s wasting away in prison.

The best the State Department mustered to mark the solemn occasion was a statement from spokeswoman Marie Harf.

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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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Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 3.04.19 PM

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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