WASHINGTON — Tourists streaming past the wrought-iron fence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. might see a sign these days before laying their eyes on the North Lawn fountain, a simple poster board clutched by a lone Marine vet drawing attention to an American whose captivity in Iran is closing in on 1,000 agonizing days.
Sgt. Terry Mahoney, who served in Operation Desert Storm and Yugoslavia, doesn’t know Sgt. Amir Hekmati, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He lives south of Gettysburg across the Maryland state line and doesn’t know the Hekmati family in Flint, Mich. But when his schedule allows, he’ll go to the White House and stand on the sidewalk with his sign for an hour because, as he told PJM, Amir is his brother in a vow of Semper Fidelis.
“I’ll get a bunch of reactions,” Mahoney said. “My fellow Marines will just say, ‘Let’s go in and get him.’” He stresses that he’s not exactly comfortable wielding a sign, but feels it’s the least he can do to respect the fraternal bonds of the service. “I wish I had more resources to do more; we’ll do what we can.”
People may be shocked to hear that Amir has spent more than twice as long in Iranian custody as the 1979 embassy hostages. That he’s had two birthdays in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. They may be surprised to hear his story, since in a town where many of those held unjustly spur congressional resolutions his name has never appeared on a piece of legislation. They’re ultimately floored by the tragic, shocking twists to an all-American story — a Midwestern man who served his country with honor takes a break between work and going back to school to pay his first visit to extended family in the land of his parents’ birth, yet finds himself facing a death sentence on trumped-up charges.
“I ache for him and I don’t know why I’m so connected,” Mahoney said, his voice choked with emotion. “How could I not do something? And I just wish that everyone could feel that way about something. I can picture him in his cell wondering if he’s going to survive to come home to his family, and I guarantee you he’s more worried about his mother and his sisters and his father and how they feel.”
The family has been on a dizzying, gut-wrenching ride since Amir was seized by the Iranian government in August 2011.
The Hekmati siblings — Amir and his twin sister, Leila, and older sister Sarah — were all born in Arizona. “We were first-generation Americans,” Sarah told PJM. Except for a grandmother able to visit from Iran a couple of times, “we never knew about our background or our relatives overseas, never had that kind of connection.”
Gradually, the Hekmatis made their way to Iran to meet their kin — except for Amir, who was busy serving in the military then working. It was when he saw a break between work and the beginning of his economics studies at the University of Michigan that he seized the opportunity to meet some family for the first time on a two-week trip.
“He was just so intrigued,” Sarah said. “This was the first experience he had to really get to know his uncles and his grandmothers.” He stayed a few nights each with different relatives to make the most out of the visit. On Aug. 29, 2011, Amir called his mother to say he would be wrapping up the trip and coming home soon to Michigan.
Amir was due for a holiday gathering that evening. “He never showed up,” his sister said.
The taxi driver who was sent to pick him up said the American never came down from his cousin’s apartment. Worried family members went to find him, and “saw that the door had been busted open and his belongings had been taken, and it looked as if there’d been a scuffle because things were kind of moved around in the apartment.”
“We understood that he had been taken at that point,” continued Sarah. “We didn’t know where. We didn’t know if he had been kidnapped or what happened to him.”
The Hekmatis began calling police stations in the area and even Iran’s UN mission in New York, and Iranian authorities told the family that he had all of the appropriate paperwork to enter the country. In his application, Amir duly noted his military service to head off any issues that might cause.
“No police station was acknowledging then that they had him in their custody,” his sister said. “We began to panic because we thought he was kidnapped.”
It wasn’t until four months later that they received confirmation Amir was locked up in Evin prison. Amir had been able to place one call in that time period and told his family that he was at Evin, but when relatives went to the prison “the officials would say, ‘we don’t have anyone by this name in our system.’”
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.
“We weren’t able to directly communicate to the legal authorities over there to defend him or have anyone testify for him,” Sarah said. “It was our word against theirs in the media.”
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,” said Sarah.
When the attorney general announced that the death sentence would be annulled due to insufficient evidence, it “was the best day of our lives.”
Amir languished in prison awaiting retrial. This month, a closed-door court found Amir guilty of “collaboration” with the U.S. government and sentenced him to 10 years behind bars. At least 16 months out of his time so far in Evin prison were spent in solitary confinement, isolation so brutal that Amir was “desperate for any human contact even to the point where he almost looked forward to his interrogators coming to get him.”
There’s only speculation around why Amir was picked up by the Iranian government in the first place, particularly since he disclosed before setting foot on Iranian soil that he’s a Marine veteran.
“He checked: Is that going to pose any sort of a problem that he had served the country?” Sarah said. “And they reassured him when they processed his paperwork that no, he’s not active duty, he’s going to Iran strictly to visit family.”
“It contradicts a lot of the claims that he entered into the country wrongfully, that he was there on a mission — he was so transparent. A lot of the items they used to depict him as a spy were things he had on him — he had his military ID, that was something he had in his wallet.” They also used images on his laptop against Amir — pictures of his travels in the Middle East posted on his Facebook page. Using his dual citizenship automatically granted by his father’s birth in the country, Iran denied that the Flagstaff-born Amir is an American and therefore “you guys have no business intervening in his case,” his sister summarized.
“He went to enjoy a bonding moment with his family and this is the outcome of it,” Sarah added.
To compound the tragedy, the Hekmatis have an added urgency to the need for Amir’s release. His father, a professor, has terminal brain cancer.
On March 25 Ali Hekmati suffered a stroke, prompting his doctor to pen an appeal to “be used as a legal document in Iran” in support of Amir’s release. “It is the family’s hope that Amir may be released to be reunited with his father, and to care for his family,” wrote Dr. Jami Foreback, an internist at McLaren-Flint hospital, stressing that “it is unclear how much time Dr. Hekmati has to live.”
Timed with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s visit to the UN General Assembly last September, Ali Hekmati sent a letter to the leader pleading for mercy.
“I long more than ever to see Amir’s face. I am now very sick with a brain tumor,” the elder Hekmati wrote. “I ask that you let me see him again, one more time, and so that he may lead our family when I am gone.”
Amir, his father added, “is a good man. An honorable man. He is not a spy, I can assure you of that.”
“He fighting really hard to stay physically strong…. I see how tired his body is and how exhausted he is,” said Sarah, adding that his body has responded to cancer treatments but doctors note how emotionally drained their father is.
“It’s just changed our lives,” she added. “We’re this completely normal, nonpolitical Midwestern family; all of a sudden, our brother is broadcast on the TV as a U.S. spy in this big show trial.”
The family is in diplomatic limbo as well as a legal one, being told that the State Department brings up Amir’s case with Tehran regularly and hoping that the administration change from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hasan Rouhani will have some effect. “We’re reassured as a family by the State Department that his case is being raised, but we’re not getting a clear understanding of why is there nothing substantial from the Iranian officials,” Sarah noted.
The State Department would not comment on Amir’s case when contacted by PJM, citing “private diplomatic conversations.”
A senior administration official said on background in an early April call on the P5+1 nuclear talks that “we discuss and do so quite decidedly and in a focused way…our American citizens about which we are concerned – Mr. Hekmati, Pastor Abedini, and Robert Levinson – all of whom deserve to be home with their families.”
The next day, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki echoed this when talking about a bilateral meeting on nuclear negotiations in Vienna, citing “the issue of American citizens and our concern about Mr. Hekmati, Pastor Abedini, and Robert Levinson, all of whom deserve to be home with their families.”
The Hekmatis’ member of Congress, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), has “taken ownership” of Amir’s campaign on the Hill, said a grateful Sarah, including getting 145 other lawmakers to sign on to a call for his release.
Kildee told PJM he spoke on the chamber floor with President Obama about Amir after this year’s State of the Union address, a brief conversation in which he asked for and received presidential assurances to pass along to the family that the administration is working on the case.
The congressman had asked Obama in a letter before the annual address to mention Amir; the president didn’t mention any of the Americans being held by Tehran. The White House last brought up Amir’s name publicly in December, when White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama brought up the cases of all three Americans held in Iran during his ice-breaking phone call with Rouhani after September’s UN General Assembly.
Kildee said he has spoken with Obama “several times” about Amir and was understanding about his request not making it into the State of the Union. “I’ve been satisfied that the president has given this the proper attention,” he said.
The lawmaker has also discussed the case with Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Ambassador Samantha Power.
“This is a case of Iran having to prove itself worthy of what it purports to be,” Kildee said, stressing that Amir’s release shouldn’t be connected to the ongoing nuclear talks but does represent the “potential of a proof point.”
“If Iran wants to be trusted, if it wants to be welcomed as a player in the international community … a tangible way to demonstrate that would be to release Amir Hekmati,” he added.
The congressman said he hasn’t received much information on the case beyond news reports. “It’s been our position all along that Amir is innocent,” he said, adding that even though he takes “some heart” in reports that Amir no longer faces a death sentence “it’s still a matter of him being imprisoned illegally.”
The offices of Michigan Sens. Carl Levin (D) and Debbie Stabenow (D) did not respond to comment requests. PJM also reached out to several of the dozens of bipartisan lawmakers who posed with “Free Amir” signs as part of a Kildee-led social-media awareness campaign in September, yet could not find members who wanted to talk about Amir’s case for this story.
Kildee said he’s “very satisfied” with the support he’s received from his colleagues, a truly bipartisan effort ranging from Georgia Democrat John Lewis to California Republican Darrell Issa.
The “Free Amir” signs, for example, not only helped let the family know that Congress was in their corner but, added Kildee, “the Iranian government sees this and understands that if they’re serious about the agreement that’s being negotiated right now, they’ve got to realize the Congress of the United States has a role in this.”
“What I would want people to know is this is a family that is dealing with a great deal of pain,” Kildee said, describing Amir’s childhood in Michigan as captain of the hockey team and growing up to serve his country. He stressed that it’s a story with “very traditional American values” — a young man on a quest to get to know his family — “that has been swept up in this international conflict between nations.”
“Not one day passes that we don’t think about this and think about what we can do today to make sure that Amir’s case continues to get attention,” the congressman said.
Kerry and Power have tweeted on Amir’s behalf, and Amir’s name has been brought up alongside those of American prisoner Saeed Abedini and missing American Robert Levinson at congressional hearings to scrutinize the White House’s strategy on negotiations with the Islamic Republic.
Amir took his case directly to Kerry in a letter smuggled out of prison and obtained by the Guardian in September. After thanking Kerry for lobbying on his behalf, Amir stressed that the confessions on false charges were “obtained by force, threats, miserable prison conditions, and prolonged periods of solitary confinement.”
“This is part of a propaganda and hostage taking effort by Iranian intelligence to secure the release of Iranians abroad being held on security-related charges. Iranian intelligence has suggested through my court-appointed lawyer Mr. Hussein Yazdi Samadi that I be released in exchange for 2 Iranians being held abroad,” Amir wrote in the letter confirmed authentic by his family. “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. I do not wish to set a precedent for others that may be unlawfully (obtained) for political gain in the future.”
“While my family and I have suffered greatly I will accept nothing but my unconditional release,” he continued. “The very same suffering that the 3 American hikers have recently suffered and many others by these unlawful tactics. My hope is that those individuals within the Iranian government who respect rule of law and international ethics will intervene in my case. As someone of Iranian heritage, I hope that the Iranian people will also support me and call on their government to respect my legal rights.”
Amir’s sister knows that despite the “very daunting, very surreal” circumstances, and the fact that he’s “obviously endured a lot of physical and emotional damage” during his time at Evin, her brother has the will to make it home.
“He’s being patient, he’s being very strong, he’s being very noble about how things are,” she said. “He understands there’s a lot of politics involved.” The political prisoners in Evin draw strength from each other as well, with Amir teaching English to fellow inmates and others sharing their skills and knowledge in return, be it math or languages or literature.
“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.
After leaving the Marines in 2005, Amir started his own consulting firm, Lucid Linguistics LLC, to provide Arabic and Persian translation services and worked as a government contractor. He’s an exercise buff who would always share a new smoothie recipe to whip up and bonded like a brother to Sarah’s husband, Ramy, who in Amir’s absence is keeping up a good fitness routine as an ode to his brother-in-law. The nephew he last saw at age 3 asks when his uncle is going to take his place at the family table on Thanksgiving and birthdays.
Sarah noted that her young son, who knows the truth about his uncle’s captivity, is putting his imagination to work in the crisis, suggesting, “Why can’t I get Spider-Man and Batman to get prison guards to look the other way and we’ll get him out of there?”
“It haunts us so much to think that he’s confined, to think he’s in a situation where he can’t even run, he can’t be active,” she said. “I don’t know what he’s being fed; I’ve been told to a certain degree and it’s horrendous.”
Support for Amir has come from widespread corners of the nation and all ages; then-13-year-old Stephen Shenassa of Mount Olive, N.J., took up the case for his bar mitzvah social project in 2012. Stephen created a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation to show to his classmates and raised awareness by posting fliers around his town and in local synagogues.
Including his bar mitzvah money and donations raised at his synagogue, Stephen was responsible for raising some $1,600 toward helping Amir.
Sarah said the support from complete strangers during this trying time has been “that good karma that we feel has kept us strong as a family.”
That includes the Maryland Marine who is now anything but a stranger to the Hekmati clan.
“I have faith that Amir is going to come out of this fine just because I know the nature of his training,” Mahoney said, adding that Iran’s claim Amir isn’t an American citizen “was like a knife in my stomach.”
“Amir has already been there twice as long as the Embassy hostages. I was only 9 — you remember that and just how long that interminable amount of time seems. When I tell people that, they wake up — the first question is, what are we doing to get him back?”
(TO HELP: Amir Hekmati has been in Evin prison for 974 days. Log on to FreeAmir.org, where you can write a letter to be delivered to Amir and sign a petition for his release. Purchase “Free Amir” gear or download a free sign to raise awareness about his case, and use the hashtag #FreeAmir when tweeting about it. Help offset the family’s mounting expenses with a donation. Write to President Obama or your member of Congress to lobby for Amir’s release. Follow Twitter updates at @FreeAmirHekmati or show your support on the campaign’s Facebook page.)
(All photos from the Free Amir campaign)