The Yellow Ribbon Project

The Yellow Ribbon Project

iranfour

As the final nuclear deal with Iran was announced with concessions and trade-offs, four names were noticeably absent from the administration’s lips: Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, Jason Rezaian, and Bob Levinson.

Families of the four had expressed trepidation in the weeks of negotiations leading up to the Vienna agreement. Would Iran feel generous in a new era of rapprochement? Or if Iran got what it wanted, would all leverage to gain the release of the American hostages could go out the window?

There was no sign today that Iran intended to release any of them.

“On the detained Americans, as I think most of you know every time we have a negotiation round with the Iranian’s we have on margin of those discussions about the detained Americans in Iran as well as our concerns about missing American, Robert Levinson. And both Secretary Kerry and myself, both separately and together, have had more than one conversation during the course of these — this negotiating round,” a senior administration official told reporters on a background call today.

“Secretary Kerry, in fact, had yet another conversation today with Minister [Javad] Zarif and their other people on the delegation that have close ties to other parts of the Iranian government with whom we speak as well. We believe very strongly that this is an opportunity for Iran to let the Americans come home.”

The official said they “certainly want to make sure that the treatment of Americans who are now being detained is the best until they get home, and that should be immediately.”

All of the Americans have suffered mistreatment including torture, malnourishment, and lack of medical care.

“And we are doing whatever we possibly can to get Americans home and we think that this is a moment where Iran has a really important opportunity to make a humanitarian gesture and bring the American home,” the official added of the world’s leading state sponsor of terror.

Hekmati, a decorated Marine veteran who served in the Iraq war, was visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 when he was seized and sentenced on trumped-up espionage charges.

Washington Post reporter Rezaian, who has reported from Tehran since 2008, was seized on July 22, 2014, in a raid on his home. He is facing espionage charges and had a closed-door hearing Monday while the final details of the agreement were being worked out.

Idaho pastor Abedini was convicted in January 2013 of establishing Christian house churches while in the country to set up a government-sanctioned orphanage.

Former FBI agent Levinson went missing off the coast of Iran eight years ago while working as a private investigator. Levinson’s family later received images of him in captivity, though the Iranian government has maintained they don’t know who is holding him. He is the longest-held U.S. hostage in history.

The Americans were not mentioned by President Obama nor John Kerry in their remarks.

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raif_badawi

His book, 1,000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think, is available for pre-order on Amazon. The man who recommends that you buy it is none other than Salman Rushdie: “Raif Badawi’s is an important voice for all of us to hear.”

Yet the 31-year-old blogger, who ran the site Free Saudi Liberals, has been suffering “a slow death” behind bars in his native Saudi Arabia simply for exploring the themes of secularism and freedom in his writings.

Badawi was arrested in 2012 for “insulting Islam through electronic channels.” He was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison, a sentence upheld last month by the Saudi supreme court.

His wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children were granted political asylum in Canada. Fifty of the lashes were carried out in January, and international outcry — including from Prince Charles — as well as his poor health have led to periodic suspensions of the rest of the lashes, which have been scheduled to coincide with Friday prayers. “It’s effectively a slow death,” Haidar told the BBC. “…And since the ruling has been upheld, it’s probable — no, it’s certain — that he will be lashed.”

“Raif doesn’t speak much about his health, or his imprisonment, yet as his wife I could tell from his voice and his tone that he’s doing badly and he’s tired. I think he’s in a bad medical condition.”

Just what did he write to anger the Saudi rulers so much?

For one, he explored separation of church and state. “No religion at all has any connection to mankind’s civic progress. This is not a failing on the part of religion but rather that all religions represent a particular, precise spiritual relationship between the individual and the Creator.”

He poked fun at edicts from Saudi clerics including a 2011 preacher saying that astronomers should be punished for steering people away from Sharia. “This venerable preacher has drawn my attention to a truth that had been hidden from me and my dear readers – namely, the existence of the so-called ‘Sharia astronomer’. What a wonderful appellation! In my humble experience and in the course of my not inconsiderable research into the universe, its origins and the stars, I have never once come across this term. I advise NASA to abandon its telescopes and, instead, turn to our Sharia astronomers, whose keen vision and insight surpass the agency’s obsolete telescopes.”

He said Israel shouldn’t be replaced by a religious Palestinian state “whose main concern would be spreading the culture of death and ignorance among its people when we need modernisation and hope.”

“Secularism,” he argued in 2010, “is the practical solution to lift countries (including ours) out of the third world and into the first world.”

And when opponents of the mosque project near Ground Zero were protesting in New York, he sided against the project.

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evin

As the families of U.S. hostages currently held in Iran have struggled for years to rally the determination to bring their loved ones home, newly released emails from the former secretary of State reveal the infuriating truth that those with connections get their case raised to the top.

In 2009, Iason Athanasiadis was covering the protests of the disputed election win of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over Mir-Hossein Mousavi for the Washington Times. The Greek citizen was detained by Iranian authorities on June 17, 2009, as he tried to fly out of the country.

Athanasiadis was thrown in Evin prison and released after three weeks of interrogation, his captors explaining they had “unprecedentedly full jails” from the Green Revolution.

On June 23, six days after the reporter was taken into custody, Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Clinton, fired off an email to Hillary Clinton, according to a new batch of correspondence released by the State Department last night.

“Dear Hillary, John Solomon, Exec Editor of Washington Times and a close personal friend (and always fair to us as AP reporter and later Wash Post reporter), has called about a Wash Times reporter who is being held by Iranians. He says Greeks have good relations and he believes they are trying to help. He believes you are meeting with Greek Foreign Minister tomorrow and hopes you can raise the issue with him – he may already know something about it. Any information he knows would help family. Hope you can do this – And hope your elbow is better – Best wishes, Lanny.”

Clinton forwarded the email to Jake Sullivan, a deputy policy director on Hillary’s 2008 presidential campaign who went on to serve as her deputy chief of staff at the State Department and then director of policy planning. Sullivan, now a visiting lecturer at Yale, also was a national security adviser to Vice President Biden until last year.

Sullivan “spent months secretly laying the groundwork” for the current Iran nuclear negotiations and is believed to be Clinton’s pick for national security advisor.

“Do you know anything about this?” Clinton asked Sullivan two days after Davis’ email.

“Yes. We had Jim raise this with the Greek ambassador yesterday, who told him that they were aware of the situation and would come back with a report when Jim got to Corfu,” Sullivan responded.

“Would you pis give Lanny a report and do you know who is keeping Solomon informed?” Clinton asked, referencing the Washington Times editor.

“I will. Philippe is keeping Solomon informed — he passed along a readout of Jim’s conversation yesterday,” Sullivan said.

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obamarousseff

President Obama was confronted directly about the U.S. hostages in Iran today as the deadline of the P5+1 nuclear talks has been extended to July 7.

At a press conference with visiting Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Obama was asked what he would say to the families of Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, Jason Rezaian and Bob Levinson if he went ahead and signed an agreement with Tehran without the release of U.S. hostages.

Amir Hekmati, a decorated Marine veteran who served in the Iraq war, was visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 when he was seized and sentenced on trumped-up espionage charges.

Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who has reported from Tehran since 2008, was seized on July 22, 2014, in a raid on his home. He is facing espionage charges.

Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini was convicted in January 2013 of establishing Christian house churches while in the country to set up a government-sanctioned orphanage.

Former FBI agent Bob Levinson went missing off the coast of Iran eight years ago while working as a private investigator. Levinson’s family later received images of him in captivity, though the Iranian government has maintained they don’t know who is holding him. He is the longest-held U.S. hostage in history.

“With respect to U.S. citizens, U.S. persons who were held in Iran, this is something that we continue to push hard on, irrespective of the nuclear deal. It’s a top priority for us to make sure that our people are treated fairly,” Obama said.

“And on the face of it, in the case of these individuals who’ve been held, they have not been and they are not being afforded the basic due process and legal rights that we afford visitors to our country. So we’re deeply concerned about it. We spend a lot of time pushing on it and we will continue to do so.”

The U.S. hostages have not just faced a lack of hospitality in Iran but torture, malnourishment, and a lack of medical care for injuries and illnesses suffered while in custody.

Obama added “there’s no lessening of the sense of urgency.”

“So when I talk to the families, we remind them of the fact that that is a mission that will continue and has been worked on consistently throughout their captivity,” he said.

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Amir8

The State Department’s new Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014 essentially supports Iran’s faulty reasoning for why the U.S. has no jurisdiction over the case of an American hostage.

The Iran section of the report also doesn’t refer to the U.S. hostages by name, though it names some Iranians who have likewise fallen victim to Iran’s judicial system.

“A dual citizen Christian pastor has been detained in Iran since September 2012 on charges related to his religious beliefs. According to public statements by the pastor’s family and international groups, he was not provided adequate medical treatment and his health further deteriorated in 2014,” the report says of Saeed Abedini.

“A dual citizen held in Evin Prison since 2011 and whose ‘confession’ was broadcast by state media during the same year remained in prison at year’s end. According to public statements from his family, he learned in April 2014 that a court had tried him and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. He has been denied access to consular visitation,” the report says of Amir Hekmati.

Hekmati, a decorated Marine veteran who served in the Iraq war, was born in the United States and is considered a dual citizen only by Iranian law as his father was born in Iran. He was visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 when he was seized and sentenced on trumped-up espionage charges.

As he knew Iran has been using this as a reason to tell the U.S. government they have no jurisdiction over the case, in March Hekmati wrote to the Iranian Interest Section in Washington, D.C., to make clear he is 100 percent American and renounce his Iranian citizenship.

“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,” he wrote.

“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,” the Marine continued.

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hekmati-free-amir

Secretary of State John Kerry will fly to Vienna tomorrow ahead of the June 30 deadline for a nuclear deal with Iran — and the family of one of the U.S. hostages is scheduled to be in the Austrian city the following day to make their desperate plea.

Amir Hekmati, a Marine veteran who served as a sergeant in Iraq, was seized while visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 and convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. Iran claims that the Flagstaff, Ariz., native is an Iranian citizen by virtue of his father’s birth country, and thus says the U.S. has no right to interfere in the case. Amir has renounced that birthright Iranian citizenship.

While Amir has stressed that he doesn’t want his freedom to be linked to nuclear negotiations or any other sort of swap that could put Americans’ lives in danger in the future, family members have expressed fear that any leverage could go out the window if Iran receives the concessions it seeks in a final deal.

Amir’s sister Sarah told PJM in March the family is “holding our breath” to see what happens at the negotiating table. If a deal is forged, “what incentive does Iran have anymore to keep them, so why not release them?” she mused.

But then again, if a deal is forged, “they’ve received everything they’re asking for and there’s no motivation to release them, either.”

“We’re terrified of this,” Sarah added.

The Hekmati family said in a statement today that Amir has been suffering from “recurring and serious health issues,” including “repeated lung infections resulting from solitary confinement.”

Amir’s father, Ali, has been suffering from terminal brain cancer and is aching to see his son one last time. Over the course of the past few weeks, as indicated by his specialists, Ali’s health has worsened and “his situation is dire.”

So today members of Amir’s family will fly from their home in Flint, Mich., to the United Kingdom. Their final stop: Vienna.

Joining the family will be Montel Williams, who has been advocating for the veteran’s release as well as the freedom of three other Americans held in Iran.

Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who has reported from Tehran since 2008, was seized on July 22, 2014, in a raid on his home.

Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini  was convicted in January 2013 of establishing Christian house churches while in the country to set up a government-sanctioned orphanage.

Former FBI agent Bob Levinson went missing off the coast of Iran eight years ago while working as a private investigator. Levinson’s family later received images of him in captivity, though the Iranian government has maintained they don’t know who is holding him.

The Hekmati family, said the statement, “sees an opportunity to secure Amir’s release: given Dr. Hekmati’s health situation, Iran’s efforts to reenter the international community, the fact that we are in the holy period of Ramadan and the comments of many, particularly in the U.S. Congress, that the release of Amir would help Iran reenter the international community and would help to pass a nuclear agreement. In a recent hearing by the United States Congress’ House Foreign Affairs Committee, several members of Congress called for Amir’s release and indicated that his release would be important if Iran wants to rejoin the international community.”

In that hearing, Sarah Hekmati stressed that they live in “constant fear for his health, his safety, and his life.”

“The fact that Amir is the first American to be sentenced to death by Iran since 1979 adds to our fears,” she said of the sentence that was ultimately commuted to 10 years. “The fact that he has been held in Evin prison longer than any other American in history is emotionally draining. We are physically and emotionally exhausted. We are sleepless. We are full of fear and anxiety. We need this nightmare to end.”

“He’s died a hundred times in this situation, so much so that he’s become numb. We want to be able to give him hope.”

The State Department has said that the release of the Americans is important, but not linked to nuclear talks.

“They’re not related. It doesn’t make us not want to get this resolved diplomatically any less than we already do. We clearly believe it’s important,” spokeswoman Marie Harf said in April. “Not as part of the nuclear talks. These are separate issues. We will continue raising [Rezaian's] case and the other two Americans who are detained, and Robert Levinson, who is missing. We’ll continue raising them, but they are not — they’re fates and the outcome of these cases should in no way be tied to the nuclear issue.”

In April, Amir dictated a letter to congressional leaders noting that while he’s “thankful that the State Department and the Obama administration has called for my release and that of my fellow Americans, there has been no serious response to this blatant and ongoing mistreatment of Americans by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and they continue on with impunity.”

“As a war veteran who defended our nation in its time of need, I ask that you also work to defend my dignity and that of my fellow Americans by putting in place serious consequences for this serial hostage-taking and mistreatment of Americans by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence for clearly illegal purposes,” Amir said. “This has been going on far too long.”

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Austin Tice, taken captive in Syria in 2012

Families of U.S. hostages, whether held by the regime in Tehran or kidnapped by terrorist groups, have consistently expressed frustration with the bureaucracy of trying to get their loved ones returned.

Whether it’s not being able to get current information on the status of efforts to locate or negotiate the release of loved ones, or receiving vague directions to not talk to the media or respond to communications from captors, families have expressed a desire to have a point of contact who can also coordinate the hostage response between departments.

“I didn’t know Jim was killed until a hysterical AP reporter called me,” Diane Foley, whose son James Foley was the first U.S. hostage beheaded by “Jihadi John” in an August ISIS video, said at a February Newseum forum. In fact, the Foley family didn’t get a call from anybody in the government all day. “That’s not acceptable,” she said.

Debra Tice, mother of missing journalist Austin Tice, said at the same forum 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.

Tice 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 a middle-school way, unfortunately.”

President Obama ordered a review of how the U.S. handles hostage crises after journalist Steve Sotloff and aid worker Peter Kassig were beheaded on video by ISIS, and the results of that review are expected to be released tomorrow.

Multiple news outlets have reported that the administration will recommend flexibility in letting the families communicate with captors and negotiate while holding to a no-concessions policy.

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robert_levinson

A son of the longest-held U.S. hostage in history reached out to his dad and appealed for his release in a Father’s Day message.

Former FBI agent Bob Levinson went missing off the coast of Iran eight years ago while working as a private investigator. Levinson’s family later received images of him in captivity, though the Iranian government has maintained they don’t know who is holding him.

Today marks the 3,028th day he’s been gone.

David Levinson wrote of how his father showed up at his dorm 10 years ago when he was a depressed college freshman. “He might as well have been wearing a Superman cape,” David Levinson wrote in a CNN op-ed.

Then, a little over a year later, his father disappeared:

Although we haven’t been able to speak to him since March of 2007, we have been a witness to his suffering. Several years ago, we received a video of him, looking broken and beaten, pleading for help from the United States government.

Less than a year later, we received photos of him in an orange jumpsuit, holding up messages mocking our helpless attempts to return him home. When I first saw these photos, I realized how unrecognizable my father had become; that same confident, smiling man who I shared lunch with that day 10 years ago had been transformed completely. It was clear that on a daily level, he has been living through hell.

Bob Levinson has already missed the opportunity to walk two of his daughters down the aisle, and David Levinson is soon becoming the first of the former FBI agent’s three sons to get married.

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kildeeamir

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) speaks for his resolution

The House today passed 391-0 a resolution calling on Iran to free four Americans, as a leading Democrat called it “ludicrous” and “ridiculous” that the administration would negotiate with the Islamic Republic without demanding their release first.

Amir Hekmati, who served as a sergeant in Iraq, was seized while visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 and convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage.

Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who has reported from Tehran since 2008, was seized on July 22, 2014, in a raid on his home.

Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini  was convicted in January 2013 of establishing Christian house churches while in the country to set up a government-sanctioned orphanage.

Former FBI agent Bob Levinson went missing off the coast of Iran eight years ago while working as a private investigator. Levinson’s family later received images of him in captivity, though the Iranian government has maintained they don’t know who is holding him.

The resolution introduced by Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who represents Hekmati’s district, reads in part: “Iran should release all detained Americans immediately and provide any information it possesses regarding any Americans that have disappeared within its borders.”

Kildee’s bill went into the vote with an impressive 199 bipartisan co-sponsors.

“These four Americans must be allowed home now,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said on the House floor in the late afternoon debate on the bill. “Can they be counted on to honor the commitments they make at the negotiating table” if they hold Americans, he added. “Call me a skeptic.”

“Let’s not forget this is a regime … where regularly the chant ‘death to America’ is used to rouse the most fervent supporters of the supreme leader,” Royce said.

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terrysharpe

A Vietnam veteran is currently walking from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness for his fellow Marine, Amir Hekmati, and the three other Americans held in Iran.

“The Walking Marine” Terry Sharpe has hit the road before — for Marine reservist Andrew Tahmooressi, who was held in a Mexican prison for seven months after bringing guns into the country.

Sharpe has also walked to bring attention to the suicide rate among veterans.

The 64-year-old vet began his walk for the Iran hostages on June 1 in Summerfield, N.C. He was due to arrive in Charlottesville, Va., tonight and Ruckersville tomorrow. The mid-Atlantic region is sweating under temps reaching into the 90s right now.

As he gets closer to D.C., Sharpe will announce the final date for his march on the Capitol. Volunteers along the route have been marching for a few miles with flags and signs, providing food or lodging, or helping carry the veteran’s gear.

His route is following Highway 29.

Hekmati, who served as a sergeant in Iraq, was seized while visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 and convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage.

Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who has reported from Tehran since 2008, was seized on July 22, 2014, in a raid on his home.

Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini  was convicted in January 2013 of establishing Christian house churches while in the country to set up a government-sanctioned orphanage.

Former FBI agent Bob Levinson went missing off the coast of Iran eight years ago while working as a private investigator. Levinson’s family later received images of him in captivity, though the Iranian government has maintained they don’t know who is holding him.

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