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The Yellow Ribbon Project

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Diane Foley, left, and Debra Tice, center, talk with PBS’ Judy Woodruff at the Newseum.

WASHINGTON — The mothers of American journalists kidnapped in Syria agreed in a forum at the Newseum tonight that communications breakdowns and bureaucratic song-and-dance are frustrating families’ efforts to bring U.S. citizens home.

Diane Foley, whose son James was the first U.S. hostage beheaded by “Jihad John” in an August ISIS video, said she didn’t even find out from the U.S. government that the video had surfaced.

“I didn’t know Jim was killed until a hysterical AP reporter called me,” Foley said, adding they didn’t get a call from anybody in the government all day. “That’s not acceptable.”

James Foley, 40, was kidnapped while working for Agence France-Presse in northwest Syria on Thanksgiving Day 2012. His mother said she knew something was wrong when she didn’t get a call from him on the holiday.

Three months before Foley was kidnapped, 33-year-old journalist and Marine Corps veteran Austin Tice went missing in Syria. His battlefield experience lent immense credibility to the pieces he filed for McClatchy Newspapers, the Washington Post, and other outlets, and as a correspondent he quickly earned the respect of the Free Syrian Army fighters.

“Spent the day at an FSA pool party with music by @taylorswift13. They even brought me whiskey. Hands down, best birthday ever,” reads Austin’s last tweet, on Aug. 11, 2012.

On Sept. 26, 2012, a video titled “Austin Tice still alive” was posted on a pro-Assad website, and raised alarms about the Syrian government’s potential role in his capture. The Assad regime has denied any involvement.

Part of Debra Tice’s frustration, more than two years later, is not knowing who exactly is holding her son.

“It is unlikely to be an opposition group,” she said, sitting beside Diane Foley. “We don’t think it’s the Syrian government. They have denied holding him.”

Tice said she and her husband, Marc, have been “sort of pushing on both ends” trying to get information from the U.S. government and the Syrian government. The Houston resident gave credit to their congressman, Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) for helping in whatever way they can. Cornyn raised Austin’s case on the Senate floor last summer at the two-year anniversary of his disappearance.

Foley said her son “would want to right this wrong” of families left in the dark, even left on their own to try to talk with captors when Americans go missing.

“Jim really believed in America,” she said. “He was an idealist. He believed until the end that our government would find a way to free them.”

With some countries paying ransom for hostages, and groups including ISIS then being stimulated to take more hostages to reap cash and publicity, Foley said she fears “this issue is going to be with us for a while.”

She hopes to “stimulate discussion” and “advocate for a clearer policy that will bring our citizens home.”

One policy that Foley thinks the American public should weigh is how families of those held by ISIS, including her own, were under a blackout “that was recommended to all of us to not talk to media.”

She now personally regrets not enlisting more media while he was being held captive to keep her son’s story alive.

“Americans need to reflect on these issues not just for journalists, but aid workers, tourists who may end up in the wrong place…” Foley said. “It could happen to any American… what is an American citizen worth to our country?”

“We did not feel Jim was a very high priority,” though they were told so by the government, she added.

The family knew he was being held with other Westerners, thus made trips to London and Paris to try to press his case. At home, there was a “huge communication problem,” particularly with the White House.

“We were privy to nothing,” Foley said. “‘Just trust, don’t talk to the media, trust in us, Jim’s a high priority.’ We did trust for a year.”

“It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just our bureaucracy didn’t work for us. It didn’t work for Jim.”

If the U.S. government decides it cannot give priority treatment to the case of every American citizen missing or held abroad, she said, officials at least need to be up front with the families about that. The FBI had information they could have shared with the Foleys’ private security team “that could have saved Jim’s life,” she said, such as his location within six months of his capture.

And for a month, Foley added, ISIS captors were emailing the family but they were left on their own as to how to respond to the terrorists. “We had no idea what we were doing,” she said. “That angered the captors.”

Tice said Reporters Without Borders is taking the lead on launching a big awareness campaign about the threats that journalists “embrace,” not just endure, to report the news in some parts of the world — a campaign that also urges President Obama to do all he can to bring Austin home.

The Tices are in D.C. for the week to work with the National Counterterroism Center on drafting recommendations for potential policy changes on how the U.S. deals with hostage crises.

Obama ordered the review after two more Americans — journalist Steve Sotloff and aid worker Peter Kassig — were beheaded on video by ISIS. The terrorists are known to be holding at least one more American, a 26-year-old woman believed to be an aid worker whose family is not speaking with the media.

Tice said she’ll naturally think the U.S. government can do more “until I have my arms around my son again.”

She said the Texas family has had issues trying to deal with the FBI, which she called an “information vacuum” — they ask the family for info but don’t give any in return. That relationship has become “a bit acrimonious in a bit of middle-school way, unfortunately.”

Tice spoke carefully when asked if the U.S. government should entertain paying ransom for hostages.

“I think there are ways of moving money around without saying the government paid ransom,” she replied.
“Every option is on the table and you can be very clever how you exercise your options.”

(The Tice family has set up a website, www.austinticefamily.com. Follow @FreeAustinTice on Twitter. Tips about Austin’s case can be sent to information@austinticefamily.com or to the Yellow Ribbon Project.)

saeedkids

At the family’s request, President Obama met with the family of Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini on a previously scheduled trip to the state after his State of the Union address this week.

It was the first time Obama met or spoke with the Abedini family since 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.

“As we all know, Mr. Abedini has been held unjustly in Iran for a number of years now.  His wife lives in Boise, and so it’s an appropriate occasion for the President to visit with her,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Idaho on Wednesday.

Obama went to the state to give remarks on the economy and his State of the Union proposals at Boise State University.

“The thing that we will assure her is something that we have said publicly many times, which is, specifically, that the United States remains concerned about the unjust detention of several Americans in Iran, including Mr. Abedini,” Earnest said. “There are occasionally conversations between U.S. officials and Iranian officials in the context of the P5-plus-1 talks to resolve the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. We routinely, on the sidelines of those conversations, raise the case of Mr. Abedini, Mr. Rezaian, Mr. Hekmati and our concerns about the whereabouts of Mr. Levinson with the Iranian counterparts.”

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amir

As members of Congress pick their guests for Tuesday’s State of the Union speech, one lawmaker will make a statement by leaving the chair next to him empty.

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who represents Amir Hekmati’s home district in Flint, Mich., will leave a seat open for the Marine veteran held for 1,240 days and counting by Iran.

Amir, born in Flagstaff, Ariz., was visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 when he was seized and sentenced on trumped-up espionage charges.

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. Marine colleagues have symbolically joined Amir in rolling hunger strikes out of Semper Fi solidarity.

“Amir Hekmati’s continued imprisonment is worthy of the world’s attention. And as all eyes are on the President as he delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday night, there will rightfully be attention on an empty seat in the gallery reserved for Amir Hekmati,” Kildee said in a statement.

“The State of the Union, watched by millions, is one of the most important speeches a president delivers. As a nation, it is important that during this crucial primetime address we do not forget about Amir and recommit ourselves to doing everything we can to bring him home.”

Amir has appealed directly to President Obama to help with his release, as well as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

He spent the first four months in a cell just over three feet by three feet. For 17 months, he “endured a tiny cell with little access to sunlight, little to no contact with family, no access to legal representation, starvation, malnutrition, sensory deprivation, threats, and ridicule and insults to my family and country by Ministry of Intelligence personnel.” No longer in solitary confinement, Amir was able to dictate the letters to the world leaders to his family over the phone.

“Amir Hekmati should be home – here, in the U.S. – not in a lonely and dark prison cell in Iran. He is innocent and has done nothing wrong,” Kildee said. “Yet for over 1,200 days now, he’s been held captive by Iran, even as they say they wish to rejoin the global community.”

“Members of Congress are watching Iran closely and releasing Amir now would show that they are serious about matching their words with real action,” the congressman added.

rezaianwife

A Washington Post reporter arrested by Iranian authorities in July and held without charge ever since was indicted Wednesday — on unspecified charges.

Correspondent Jason Rezaian, a dual citizen through his father’s Iranian heritage, and his Iranian wife, Yeganeh Salehi, who works for The National newspaper out of the UAE, were both arrested, yet his wife was released in October. Officials have vaguely said Rezaian violated state security.

Because Iran hadn’t filed charges, the American hasn’t been able to consult with a lawyer. He’s been held in solitary confinement and reportedly needs blood-pressure medication as well as treatment for a severe eye infection.

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi held a press conference Wednesday to say that after 170 days of “temporary detention” of the journalist his case has been forwarded to a Tehran Revolutionary Court.

“Contrary to what some human rights organizations claim about the violations of the rights of suspects in visiting with their families, Jason Rezaian’s mother, who recently traveled to Iran to visit with her son, met the aforementioned twice,” the prosecutor claimed.

The announcement came the same day that Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif sat down for the latest round of nuclear talks in Geneva. Iran seized Rezaian just after it received its first extension on the nuclear negotiations.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Wednesday they were “looking into those reports”of Rezaian’s indictment.

“I don’t have any independent confirmation of that. We obviously believe that all of the American citizens detained in Iran should be released,” Harf said. “As I said, it’s something we do raise when we meet for the nuclear negotiations, and I will check and see if we can confirm that.”

Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, said in a statement that “we hope the referral of his case to a Revolutionary Court represents a step forward toward Jason’s prompt release.”

“This step gives Iran’s judiciary an opportunity to demonstrate its fairness and independence by determining that the charges are baseless,” Baron said. “We call on Iran to make these charges public, to allow Jason access to a lawyer and to bring a swift and just resolution of a six-month-long nightmare that has been extremely difficult for Jason and his family.”

hekmati-free-amir

A month ago, U.S. Marine veteran Amir Hekmati pleaded with President Obama to help end his ordeal in Tehran’s Evin prison on trumped-up espionage charges.

Now, held for 1,235 days by Iran, he has appealed directly to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for his release — and revealed chilling details about his captivity in the process.

Amir, born in Flagstaff, Ariz., was visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 when he was seized. “As many other Iranians born in the US, I dreamed of visiting my parents’ homeland and learning more of my Iranian heritage. Unfortunately, after receiving assurances from the Iranian Interest Section in Washington DC, after only three weeks I was arrested, sentenced to death, and subsequently ten years to only discover that the Iranian Interest Section was an accomplice in my arrest. I have been imprisoned for three years now, enduring miserable prison conditions that cause great damage to my physical and mental health,” he wrote.

He spent the first four months in a cell just over three feet by three feet. For 17 months, he “endured a tiny cell with little access to sunlight, little to no contact with family, no access to legal representation, starvation, malnutrition, sensory deprivation, threats, and ridicule and insults to my family and country by Ministry of Intelligence personnel.”

No longer in solitary confinement, Amir was able to dictate the letter to his family over the phone as he did with the letter to Obama.

Still, “conditions remain dire” as Amir is housed with “hardened criminals” among food and energy shortages, while back home in Flint, Mich., his father, Ali, is dying of a brain tumor.

“For the past three years, my family has been receiving emails and phone calls from individuals within Iran proposing prisoner exchanges, even going as far as asking my family to lobby publicly for the release of these individuals,” he wrote to Rouhani. “Considering I have committed no crime and have no connections to these individuals, my family and I fail to see why we should have to lobby for their release or why I should have to spend the next ten years in prison.”

Amir alluded to deal-making propositions in an earlier letter smuggled to Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013, stressing that he would “accept nothing but my unconditional release” as Iranian intelligence officials suggested he be swapped for two of their own. “I had nothing to do with their arrest, committed no crime, and see no reason why the U.S. Government should entertain such a ridiculous proposition,” he wrote then. “I do not wish to set a precedent for others that may be unlawfully (obtained) for political gain in the future.”

In the Rouhani letter, Amir noted the double-speak of Iran’s foreign ministry claiming it holds no Americans — they consider him Iranian because of his parents, despite the fact that he was born in the U.S. — while suggesting that the Marine could be swapped for Iranians held in U.S. prisons.

“If I am an Iranian citizen, according to [Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Marzieh] Afkham, how can Iran falsely imprison its own citizen and trade him for another Iranian?” He also noted that Afkham has stated publicly that the Iranians they want released have only violated sanctions laws, while individuals contacting the Hekmati family have demanded the release of Iranians held for crimes of “a much more serious nature.”

“…If your government’s claims are true that Iranians being held in the US are innocent and are being held on false pretenses and you consider this wrong, then why has the Iranian government been engaged in the very same wrong repeatedly over the previous decades?”

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Amir-Hekmati

A Connecticut Democrat has stepped in on behalf of a Michigan Marine veteran who has been unjustly imprisoned by the Islamic Republic for 1,226 days.

Born in Flagstaff, Ariz., and a resident of Flint, Mich., Amir Hekmati 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. He was originally sentenced to death; that was rescinded and he’s currently being held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison on a charge of conspiracy to commit espionage.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he reached out to Acting Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who is leading U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran, regarding Amir’s “troubling” detention.

In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry today, Blumenthal noted that Amir “has been held by the Iranian government without a fair trial, at times suffering solitary confinement and deplorable conditions including abuse and torture.”

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 Amir8

Marine veteran Amir Hekmati has “reluctantly and temporarily” put on hold his hunger strike in protest of more than three years of detention by Iran.

A family spokesman said Amir was apparently pressured by prison officials to suspend his hunger strike in return for “certain steps to have his case revisited by appropriate Iranian government authorities.”

In a letter to President Obama this week, Amir 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.”

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.

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

“Amir and the Hekmati family deeply appreciate all of those who have joined Amir in solidarity. All of those who are helping to free Amir,” the spokesman said. “The family, particularly Amir’s ailing father, is deeply moved by the thousands who have joined the campaign.”

Amir plans to resume his hunger strike “if real action is not taken on his case with real results.”

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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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