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Bridget Johnson

Bridget Johnson is a veteran journalist whose news articles and opinion columns have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe. Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor at The Hill, where she wrote The World from The Hill column on foreign policy. Previously she was an opinion writer and editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News.

She is an NPR contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico and more, and has myriad television and radio credits as a commentator. Bridget is Washington Editor for PJ Media.

Iran Hostages: ‘Raising the Issue at This Point Can No Longer Suffice’

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Rep. Ted Deutch’s (D-Fla.) constituent Bob Levinson is the longest-held U.S. hostage in history, having recently marked eight years since he went missing off the coast of Iran.

In January 2014, 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.”

The captors of three other Americans are known: the regime in Tehran holds Marine vet Amir Hekmati, seized in 2011 when he went to visit family for the first time; Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini, 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; and Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who has been held without any notification of the charges against him for more than six months.

The frustration at their continued captivity and documented mistreatment — especially as Washington sits across a table from Tehran nuclear negotiators — only mounts.

Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week that the administration will “continue to insist” that Iran locate Levinson and release Hekmati, Abedini, and Rezaian.

“I understand that we are now approaching a deadline and I want to — I want to express my thanks, as I have every single time I’ve had the opportunity, for the focus on working to bring my constituent, Bob Levinson, home,” Deutch told Blinken at the hearing.

“But as we approach these last days, let me just say that ‘raising the issue’ at this point can no longer suffice and that with respect to Pastor Abedini and Amir Hekmati and Jason Rezaian and Bob Levinson, if anyone is to take Iran seriously, that there is any commitment that they can make that can be adhered to, then the best show of good faith they can make will be to return those Americans,” the congressman stressed.

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Posted at 6:31 pm on March 20th, 2015 by Bridget Johnson

Marine Vet Prisoner Tells Tehran to Keep Their Passport: He’s 100 Percent American

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Marine veteran Amir Hekamti has been unjustly held by Iran for 1,297 days as the Islamic Republic refuses to bend to international pressure to let him go — asserting that since he’s an Iranian citizen, it’s none of America’s business.

But Amir, who was born in Flagstaff, Ariz., and grew up in Michigan, is a dual citizen only because of his father’s heritage. The Iraq War veteran was visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 when he was seized and sentenced on trumped-up espionage charges.

In a recent letter to the Iranian Interest Section in Washington, D.C., Amir makes clear he is 100 percent American and renounces his Iranian citizenship.

Amir writes that he was “surprised” to be given an Iranian passport when he applied for a visa in 2011, but was eager to see the country of his heritage. “Sadly, after only three weeks of my visit, I was falsely imprisoned and put as a part of a propaganda campaign by the Ministry of Intelligence and for nearly 3½ years I’ve endured inhumane treatment and witnessed the devastation this has caused my family and the deteriorating health of my father who is battling with cancer.”

He told of being interrogated and called only “an Iranian by name,” then being “paraded on Iranian television as a major catch and a testament to Iran’s intelligence prowess.”

“After a 15 minute trial, I was sentenced to death by hanging, having quickly been deemed not fit for life” — a sentence later overturned, becoming a 10-year term during a secretive retrial.

“To date, prison officials continue to take every opportunity to address me as spy in hopes of weakening my morale and to escape their own guilty consciences. The Ministry of Intelligence recently denied a request to visit my sick grandmother citing that the Ministry of Intelligence is worried ‘the Americans will take you away by helicopter.’ This while my request was to visit her under armed guard,” Amir continued.

“The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, Mrs. Afkham, has stated that there are no Americans in Iran; however, it is precisely for the reason that I am American that I have been taken hostage by the Ministry of Intelligence and used as a political bargaining tool. Having been born in the US and having spent my entire life there, my citizenship status is clear. My intended visit of only one month to Iran has become 3 years and 6 months, which means that for every day I was allowed to visit my family, has resulted thus far in 42 days of prison under miserable conditions.”

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

“My Iranian heritage and affinity for the Iranian people will always be a part of me, but I wish to have no ties to an organization that places so little value on my human rights and dignity and is willing to destroy an entire family for simple propaganda purposes.”

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Posted at 5:55 pm on March 17th, 2015 by Bridget Johnson

Idaho Pastor to Son: Iran’s ‘Chains’ Keep Them Apart on Boy’s 7th Birthday

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On St. Patrick’s Day, as a young Idaho boy marks his 7th birthday, his dad will not be among the party-goers despite Jacob Abedini’s every wish.

Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini 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.

“I saw your beautiful birthday invitation that you had made me and I know how much you want me to be there on your birthday. Daddy loves you so much. I long to be there for your birthday and to make this reunion happen, but my chains are keeping me from you,” Saeed wrote to his son, whom he last saw when the boy was 4 years old.

The pastor thanked Jacob “for standing strong with me in this battle for the Glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

As Iran nuclear talks barrel forward again this week, with the Obama administration hoping to arrive at a deal framework, the Abedinis just want Saeed home — for Jacob’s birthday, and every day after.

“The U.S. government should not be negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran while Pastor Saeed sits in an Iranian prison,” Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, which has been representing the Abedinis, has said.

State Department press secretary Jen Psaki said a week ago that Secretary of State John Kerry has raised the cases of Abedini, Marine veteran Amir Hekmati, retired FBI agent Bob Levinson, and Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian “directly with Foreign Minister [Javad] Zarif on several occasions.”

“So it is not about a renewed push; there’s been a consistent push. And obviously, seeing these American citizens come home is – remains a top priority,” Psaki said.

She wouldn’t, however, speculate on whether Iran might release any of the men as a goodwill gesture related to negotiations.

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Posted at 6:55 pm on March 16th, 2015 by Bridget Johnson

FBI Bumps Up Reward to $5M as Levinson Marks 8 Years Held in Iran

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Former FBI agent Bob Levinson long ago set the record as the longest-held U.S. hostage in history.

Today, the father of seven hit another grim milestone: it’s been eight years since he went missing off the coast of Iran.

And Tuedsay is Levinson’s 67th birthday.

Levinson 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 may have been contracting for the CIA.

In November 2013 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 2014, 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.”

“Every year on this date we remind the world that Bob’s case is still not resolved and that this husband, father and grandfather is still not home where he belongs. But we, his family, have been reminded every single day of the past eight years because of the enormous hole in our lives that will only be filled when Bob is back with us,” the Levinson family said in a statement. “We need to see him, hear his voice, and hold him.”

“To help the world remember this extraordinary human being,” they added links to the hostage video they received in 2010 and photographs received in 2011 . “We have heard nothing since. We urge the governments of Iran and the United States to work together to resolve this case and send Bob home, so he can live the rest of his life quietly, surrounded by the family that loves him.”

Last year at this time, the FBI was offering a million-dollar reward for the location and safe return of Levinson. Today, the reward was increased to $5 million.

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Posted at 1:08 pm on March 9th, 2015 by Bridget Johnson

Moms of James Foley, Austin Tice Determined to ‘Right This Wrong’ of How Government Handles Hostage Cases

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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.)

Posted at 6:30 pm on February 4th, 2015 by Bridget Johnson

Obama Meets with Family of Idaho Pastor Held by Iran

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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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Posted at 4:44 pm on January 23rd, 2015 by Bridget Johnson

Congressman to Keep State of the Union Seat Empty for Marine Held by Iran

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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.

Posted at 1:29 pm on January 19th, 2015 by Bridget Johnson

Iran Indicts Washington Post Reporter on Mystery Charges

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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.”

Posted at 5:17 pm on January 14th, 2015 by Bridget Johnson

Marine Vet Held by Iran for 1,235 Days Refuses to be Brokered in Prisoner Swap

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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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Posted at 3:14 pm on January 14th, 2015 by Bridget Johnson

Senate Dem to Kerry: ‘Redouble Efforts and Aggressively Push for Swift Release’ of Americans in Iran

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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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Posted at 10:10 am on January 5th, 2015 by Bridget Johnson