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Three Years in the Hands of Iran for Marine Veteran Amir Hekmati

August 29th, 2014 - 12:22 pm

Amir Hekmati, right, with his father, Ali, and brother-in-law Ramy.

Today marks three years in Iranian captivity for decorated Marine veteran Sgt. Amir Hekmati, who was arrested while visiting extended family in the Islamic Republic.

Amir is 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 who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom is not an American citizen.

He’s a proud American, a proud Marine who was getting ready to begin economics studies at the University of Michigan and saw the opportunity to take a two-week break to see family he’d never met in Tehran. Amir secured all of the proper paperwork to enter the country, and was candid about his military background.

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. The family didn’t know if he had been kidnapped or arrested. Four months later, they received confirmation Amir was locked up in Evin prison.

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.



A young New Jersey man who was visiting Israel to study at a yeshiva and went missing shortly before Shabbat has been discovered dead in the Jerusalem Forest.

Aaron Sofer, 23, of Lakewood, N.J., was hiking in the forest on Friday when he disappeared. Search teams have been looking for him since 6 p.m. that day.

He was hiking with a friend, who says he lost sight of Sofer as the New Jersey man walked ahead of him down an incline. That was about noontime.

His parents flew to Israel and offered a 100,000 shekel reward for their son’s return. The FBI was involved in the search because Sofer is an American citizen.

The Jerusalem Post reported that Sofer’s body was found today by a United Hatzalah volunteer.

“Soon after beginning our search we came across a man’s body among the shrubbery that seemed to match the missing student’s description,” Yisrael Erlich, a United Hatzalah worker, told the paper. “We immediately notified the police via our phone app, and a large group of police and rapid-responders quickly appeared on the scene. I was not expecting the incident to end in such a horrific tragedy.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement that with the discovery of Sofer’s body “our worst nightmare has come true.”



Steven Sotloff reported from Libya, including investigating the Benghazi attack, before going to Syria.

The mother of the American journalist threatened at the end of last week’s video showing the beheading of James Foley directly appealed to the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State to release her son.

Miami native Steven Sotloff, 31, had written for TIME magazine, Foreign Policy, the Christian Science Monitor, The Diplomat and more when he disappeared Aug. 4, 2013, near the Turkish border.

After photojournalist Foley was beheaded on camera in a video released by ISIS on Aug. 19, his executioner reappeared on camera holding Sotloff by the back of his orange shirt.

“The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” warned the terrorist.

The very fact that Sotloff had been kidnapped surprised media. His family had kept the story dark, hoping a media blackout might give them better negotiations with his captors.

Today his mother, Shirley, pleaded for his life in a video carried by Al-Arabiya.

“My son Steven is in your hands,” she said directly to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. ”Steven is a journalist who traveled to the Middle East to cover the suffering of Muslims at the hand of tyrants. Steven is a loyal and generous son, brother, and grandson. He’s an honorable man and has always tried to help the weak. We have not seen Steven for over a year and we miss him very much. We want to see him home safe and sound and to hug him.”

She said that since her son was captured, she learned enough about Islam to know ”that no individual should be held responsible for the sins of others.”

“Steven has no control over the actions of the U.S. government. He’s an innocent journalist. I’ve always learned that you, the Caliph, can grant amnesty. I ask you to please release my child,” Shirley Sotloff said.

“As a mother, I ask your justice to be merciful and not punish my son for matters he has no control over,” she added. “I ask you to use your authority to spare his life and to follow the example set by the Prophet Muhammad who protected people of the book. I want what every mother wants, to live to see her children’s children. I plead with you to grant me this.”

ISIS supporters, meanwhile, were using the hashtag #StevensHeadInObamasHands to try to heap pressure on the White House to meet its demands to stop airstrikes on the Islamic State.

“As you kill us in Iraq, bomb us in Yemen and torture us in Afghanistan, we will kill you wherever we find you,” read one tweet.

At today’s White House press briefing, spokesman Josh Earnest said he didn’t know if President Obama had seen the mother’s video appeal.

“I have seen the video, and I’ve seen the news reports about the video. And obviously the thoughts and prayers of everybody here at the White House and in the Obama administration are with the Sotloff family as they endure this very tragic situation,” Earnest said.

“As you know, this administration is deeply engaged and doing everything we can to seek the return of every American who is currently being held in that region. But I don’t have an update in terms of the president’s — whether or not the president has seen the specific video in question.”

He said he didn’t know if the making or release of the video had been coordinated at all with the administration. ”I know that the members of this administration have been in touch with the Sotloff family on a regular basis, but I don’t have anything to share in terms of guidance that was offered to them about the wisdom of doing a video like this.”

Earnest also wouldn’t assess whether the video was a wise move.  ”She obviously, as is evident from the video, feels desperate about the — about the safety and well-being of her son, and understandably so,” he said.

“…And the United States is committed to his — to doing everything that we can to try to recover him and rescue him safely and as soon as possible. We certainly would call on those who are holding to release him. But it is the policy of the United States, and has been for quite some time, that this government does not pay ransom for American hostages and not only do we not — well, and we don’t ask others to pay ransom to secure the release of American hostages for the reasons that I laid out, that it only serves to allow those terrorist organizations to finance their operations and only puts greater risk on the lives of other American civilians.”

When shown a clip of the video by MSNBC, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said the entire government and not just the military would “never lose focus on those Americans who are being held hostage and captive in these kinds of environments by terrorists.”

“That’s why we executed that rescue attempt, because we just don’t lose focus,” Kirby said of the failed rescue attempt the Pentagon says was conducted by special forces earlier this summer. “And while we can’t talk about the kinds of ways we’re trying to stay focused on it, I can assure you, I can assure her, I can assure the American people that we’ve not lost focus on him or the other hostages.”

A White House petition asking Obama to ”take immediate action to save Steven’s life by any means necessary” has reached just over 11,000 signatures. It needs 100,000 by Sept. 18 to trigger a White House response.

In the video, ISIS didn’t name a deadline to spare Sotloff’s life.



New Jersey lawmakers are alarmed that a Yeshiva student from their state has gone missing near Jerusalem, and urged the State Department to do all it can to locate the young man.

Aaron Sofer, 23, of Lakewood, N.J., was hiking in the Jerusalem Forest on Friday when he disappeared. He was in Israel to attend an ultra-Orthodox school.

Sofer is the constituent of Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who noted in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday that search teams including Shin Bet have been looking for him since 6 p.m. Friday, to no avail. Today searchers reportedly found items belonging to Sofer and told civilians to leave the area.

He was hiking with a friend, who says he lost sight of Sofer as the New Jersey man walked ahead of him down an incline. That was about noontime.

His parents have flown to Israel and are “desperate that the search for this young man should continue,” Smith wrote.

“He may have been lost or injured and unable to return without assistance. It is also possible that he may have been kidnapped,” Smith added.

The kidnapping and murder of three Yeshiva boys – Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Frenkel, 16 — from the kibbutz Kfar Etzion in the West Bank sparked the current Israeli offensive on Hamas. Naftali was a dual citizen with an American passport.

Smith stressed to Kerry that “it is in the interest of the United States Government to find out what happened to this American citizen.”

“Therefore, I urge you to identify key staff within the Department and all relevant U.S. Government officials at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv who can help Aharon’s family and assist Israeli authorities in the search.”

In a statement, Smith said he learned about the missing man over the weekend “and became very concerned for his well-being.”

In response to his letter, Kerry’s chief of staff David Wade “assured” the congressman that the department “was totally committed to assisting Aharon and his family.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement this morning that he is “deeply concerned over the disappearance.”

“My thoughts are with them and the Lakewood community during this trying time,” Menendez said. “By all accounts, Aaron is a devout and dedicated student, who traveled to Israel to enhance his knowledge and deepen his understanding of sacred Jewish texts. For yeshiva students like Aaron, there is no greater pursuit than to live and study in Jerusalem, while worshipping at Judaism’s holiest sites.”

“Ever since I was notified that Aaron went missing in Israel, my office has worked very closely with the State Department, U.S. Embassy and Consular officials in Israel, and the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C.,” the senator continued. “While investigators are pursuing every lead, we keep Aaron and his family in our thoughts and prayers.”

“I hold to hope that Aharon will be located and returned to his family safely,” Smith said. “Until that day comes, he and his family are in our prayers, and I will work with the State Department to use all resources available to find him and bring him to safety.”


Reporter Bashar Fahmi was working for U.S. broadcaster Alhurra when he went missing two years ago in Syria.

The beheading of American journalist James Foley — and the grisly video of the crime that showed ISIS terrorists threatening to next kill Miami native Steve Sotloff — raised a chilling question: How many other hostages might be in the clutches of the Islamic State?

The tragedy has raised awareness of the reporters who have gone missing in Syria, with their whereabouts and captors unknown.

Foley, who was taken in northwest Syria on Thanksgiving Day 2012, was widely believed to originally be in the hands of Bashar Assad’s forces before the Islamic State video was released. Sotloff was taken near the Turkish border on Aug. 4, 2013, and his appearance at the end of the Foley video was surprising to many. His family had kept the story dark, hoping a media blackout might give them better negotiations with his captors.

In a June letter smuggled out by a released prisoner, then dictated from memory to Foley’s mother, the war correspondent described sharing a cell with 17 others. He said they shared stories and played makeshift board games such as Risk from scraps found in the cell. A British expert on Syria studied images of the terrain in the video and determined the site of the execution to be in the hills south of Raqqa, capital of the caliphate.

The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates about 20 journalists are missing in Syria, but the number of Americans — particularly if other families are imposing a media blackout on abductions as Sotloff’s family did — is unknown. A U.S. official told CNN after the Foley murder that the number of Americans held by ISIS is believed to be several, including kidnapped aid workers.

Foley’s murder instantly piqued concern for Texas native Austin Tice, a Marine Corps veteran who wrote for McClatchy Newspapers, the Washington Post, and other outlets. Tice went missing Aug. 14, 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. Foreign policy experts and Syrian natives alike agreed that everything from the poor production quality to the costumes and chants seemed staged to look like jihadi yokels, calling out “God is great” while leading a blindfolded Tice up a hill. Tice stammers an Arabic prayer followed by, “Oh Jesus, oh Jesus.” The video ends abruptly.



Journalist Steve Sotloff in Libya, from his Facebook page

The last tweet before Steven Sotloff disappeared showed that his hometown was never far from the foreign correspondent’s mind.

“How much of an impact with big man #GregOden have with #MiamiHeat next season?” he tweeted on Aug. 3, 2013. It’s believed he was kidnapped the next day in Syria near the Turkey border.

Sotloff had written for TIME magazine, Foreign Policy, the Christian Science Monitor, The Diplomat and more. He reported from Libya after the terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, trying to piece together what happened that night when Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed. One of his pieces tried to reconstruct the attack with firsthand testimony from the Libyan guards on duty at the time.

A few days before his abduction, he tweeted that he had been hit by pepper spray unleashed by riot police in Antakya, a Turkish town near the Syrian border with a notable Christian population. At the time, the Erdogan government was responding harshly to peaceful protests advocating a more democratic Turkey.

On July 31, 2013, he tweeted about the death of infamous heart-eating Syrian rebel Abu Sakkar, referring to him as “Hannibal Lecter wannabe.”

The 31-year-old freelancer who became fluent in Arabic listed his location as الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا — the Middle East and North Africa.

After photojournalist James Foley was beheaded on camera in a video released by ISIS on Tuesday, his executioner reappeared on camera holding Sotloff by the back of his orange shirt.

“The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” warned the terrorist.

The very fact that Sotloff had been kidnapped surprised media. His family had kept the story dark, hoping a media blackout might give them better negotiations with his captors.

Sotloff’s parents live in the district of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who is also chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa.

“They’re my neighbors. We live in a suburb of Miami, the village of Pinecrest. They reached out to us last year, August, around this time, saying that their son had disappeared, a freelance journalist,” Ros-Lehtinen told MSNBC today. “And then I met with them in Washington and been in contact with the Department of State, with everyone, the ambassador of Syria, to see what could be done, Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International.”

Ros-Lehtinen said it’s “very difficult” to determine what the next move should be.



The Islamic State’s official media just released a graphic video showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley, who was taken in northwest Syria on Thanksgiving Day 2012.

The ISIS terrorist in the video says that the beheading is revenge for President Obama’s recent airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq.

The video, viewed in full by PJM, begins with a snippet of Obama speaking about the strikes, then shifts to images of the strikes with a title that reads, “American Aggression Against the Islamic State.” The title card then says a “A Message to America.”

Foley, with a shaved head, was kneeling on the ground in an orange top and pants next to a terrorist dressed in black, with his face covered.

“I call on my friends, family and loved ones to rise up against my real killer, the U.S. government,” Foley said, clearly reading from a script and squinting in the sun. “For what will happen to me is only a result of their complacency and criminality.”

He gives a message to his “beloved parents” to not accept any compensation for his death from those who ordered the airstrikes, the last “nail” in his “coffin.” He then addresses his Air Force brother John: “Think about what you are doing. Think about the lives you destroy, including your own family.”

“…I wish I could have more time. I wish I could have the hope of freedom, and seeing my family again. But that ship has sailed. I guess all in all, I wish I wasn’t American.”

“This is James Wright Foley, an American citizen of your country,” the terrorist says to the camera, in what could be a Londoner accent. “As a government you have been at the forefront of aggression towards the Islamic State. You have plotted against us and gone far out of your way to find reasons to interfere in our affairs.”



Warren Weinstein and his wife, Elaine

Al-Qaeda needled the Obama administration about forgetting a U.S. contractor in their custody for three years, charging the U.S. government “wants Warren Weinstein to die in prison so that it may absolve itself of responsibility regarding his case.”

Weinstein was abducted Aug. 13, 2011, by armed gunmen who burst into his Lahore home. The Rockville, Md., resident put in several years with USAID and the World Bank before becoming an economic development consultant in 2003.

In a letter and video released last fall, the 73-year-old begged President Obama for help. “You are now in your second term as president of the United States and that means that you can take hard decisions without worrying about reelection,” he said. “I hope and pray to God that you, as leader of the United States, along with your administration, will feel an adequate level of responsibility toward me and work for my release.”

In Thursday’s message released by its media wing As-Sahab, al-Qaeda addresses his family.

“Your government has not made any serious efforts for the release of the prisoner. Your government has not contacted us for his release. We are not interested in retaining the prisoner in our protection; we are only seeking to exchange him in return for the fulfilment of our demands that we have conveyed,” the terror group said, according to the English text released alongside the Arabic.

“With the permission of Allah, we will not spare any efforts for the release of our prisoners who have been imprisoned by your government for no guilt except that they had acted in defense of the Muslim Ummah against the oppression of the American government. Your continued silence on the inaction of your government will only lead to your prisoner dying a lonely death in prison after this deliberate and prolonged neglect on the part of your government,” the statement continued.

“Therefore, if you want Warren Weinstein to be released, do whatever you can to pressurize [sic] your government.”

No new images of video of Weinstein were released by al-Qaeda.



This week marks two years since American journalist and Marine Corps veteran Austin Tice went missing in Syria.

Tice’s 33rd birthday was Monday. A video showing Tice in the captivity of unknown abductors was posted online in September 2012, and the family has had no word since.

Last week, White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked about the impending anniversary, and whether Tice’s case is “on the radar” of the administration.

“These kinds of situations are on the radar of the American foreign policy and national security apparatus here in the Obama administration. It’s something that the president on a regular basis is updated on,” Earnest responded.

“And, you know, we continue to spend a great deal of time and effort and resources to safely recover or ensure the return of those American citizens who are being held hostage around the globe,” he continued. “That is something that is — is the — that is something on which the president’s advisers spend a lot of time. And it continues to be a high priority, as you’d expect.”

Tice was one of the few foreign journalists to report from Damascus after arriving in the war-torn country in May. He’d fallen in love with this part of the world on his tours as a Marine Corps infantry officer from 2005 to December 2011. Leaving the Corps with the rank of captain, Tice soon would put his studies at Georgetown Law School on hold to become a freelance journalist.



Lawmakers prodded administration officials at two hearings on Iran nuclear negotiations on how the fate of Americans being held by Tehran is figuring into the talks — especially since Iran recently detained even more U.S. citizens.

Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, was kidnapped on Kish Island in March 2007. Amir Hekmati, a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq war, was seized in August 2011 while visiting extended family. Saeed Abedini, a pastor who was opening an orphanage in the country with the permission of the government, was arrested in July 2012.

Images of Levinson in captivity have been sporadically received by his family. Hekmati and Abedini languish in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

Last week, Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, a dual citizen through his father’s Iranian heritage, and his Iranian wife, who works for The National newspaper out of the UAE, were arrested by Iran. The Post reported that they have not been allowed to contact their families, but Iranian officials confirmed Friday that they were in government custody.

Reporters Without Borders said Monday that “a freelance Iranian-American photographer who works for various news organizations including the Washington Post was also arrested, together with her non-journalist husband.”

“Her family did not want to disclose her identity. The whereabouts of the couple and the reasons for their arrest are not known,” the group said. Some reports indicated that another American journalist was seized, but this appears to have been a mix-up with the photographer’s husband.

“Before I get to the negotiation questions, I do have a question for you, Madam Secretary, about the detention of the Washington Post correspondent in Tehran, Jason Rezaian, who I understand is a dual citizen, including a citizen of the United States, and his wife who were arrested at their home last Tuesday,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) asked at the beginning of a Tuesday hearing with Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the lead U.S. negotiator in the P5+1 talks.

“Since their arrest, no one’s heard from them and two U.S. citizens working as freelance photographers are also being held. To my knowledge, no charges have been bought and the detainees apparently have no access to legal counsel,” Menendez continued. “Can you tell me what we’re doing on this regard?”

“Thank you for raising this. It is of great concern to all of us, as is the continued detention of Amir Hekmati and Pastor Abedini and our concern about Robert Levinson, who’s been missing for a very long time and we believe in Iran,” Sherman said. “We have in fact used our appropriate channels, principally the Swiss, to make known our concern about this apparent detention of an American journalist and his wife and the additional photojournalists. There is absolutely no reason for this to occur.”

“I read with interest the Washington Post editorial with which, I entirely agree, this — we are a country that believes in press freedom,” she continued. “This is a reporter who has been reporting from some time, had been in Vienna with us, in fact, during the negotiations and we call on Iran to release all of these people, including Pastor Abedini, Amir Hekmati and to help us in every way possible to return Robert Levinson home as well.”