Iran Sets Milestone with Longest Held U.S. Hostage in History
Levinson served 28 years with the FBI and DEA. The Bureau has been probing his disappearance since 2007.
“Exhaustive efforts have not yet been successful in locating Bob or establishing a dialogue with those who are holding him, but the FBI remains wholly committed to bringing him home safely to his loved ones,” said FBI Director James Comey on Monday. “We will continue to follow every lead into his disappearance, and we ask anyone with information regarding his disappearance to contact the FBI.”
When asked today if Levinson was ever part of negotiations over the past few weeks, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki replied, "It was -- the focus of that -- of the meetings in Geneva were on the nuclear negotiations."
"Obviously, this is an issue that we remain committed to," Psaki continued. "And -- and -- and having a moment like today where we're acknowledging that he -- he has been detained now or missing, I should say, for longer than any other U.S. citizen reminds us of, you know, how much his family has been thinking about it and reminds us of, you know, how much we'd like to see him returned home."
When pressed on whether the U.S. even found out from Iran where he is, Psaki said, "I just don't have any update I can -- I can provide on that front."
There hasn't even been any movement, though, on the release of Americans whose whereabouts in Iran are no mystery.
Hekmati, a 30-year-old Flagstaff, Ariz., native, was arrested and charged with spying in August 2011 while visiting his grandmother in the country. Last year, after a televised coerced confession, Hekmati was found guilty of being “corrupt on Earth and an enemy of God” and sentenced to die. The verdict was ruled "not complete" on appeal and Hekmati will be retried.
His congressman, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), noted as the weekend agreement with Iran over its nuclear program was announced that "releasing Amir Hekmati, my constituent who continues to be imprisoned in Iran, would be a tangible demonstration that it is serious about ongoing diplomacy.”
Behind bars in Tehran's notorious Evin prison, Hekmati has been held in solitary confinement and waged a monthlong hunger strike that further deteriorated his health. Back home in the U.S., his father was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.
Two months ago, Hekmati, a decorated veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, tried pleading his case directly in a letter smuggled out the prison to Secretary of State John Kerry.
"For over 2 years I have been held on false charges based solely on confessions obtained by force, threats, miserable prison conditions, and prolonged periods of solitary confinement," Hekmati wrote in the letter obtained by The Guardian. "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."
"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 continued. "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."
Abedini, an American citizen and Idaho resident who converted to Christianity as a teen, had been forced to flee Iran once before for starting a network of home churches in the Islamic Republic.
He was arrested in 2009 on a visit back to Iran to see his family, warned not to evangelize, then was arrested again in July 2012 when he re-entered the country for humanitarian work. The pastor was thrown into Evin prison, and has suffered abuse both at the hands of his captors and from other inmates who self-identify as al-Qaeda. "He's not going to survive even a few months in that prison," his wife, Naghmeah Abedin, told CNN.
Several senators have taken up Abedini's cause, telling Iran that it's violating "numerous Iranian laws and international obligations" by not guaranteeing Abedini "his right to freely practice his religion of choice."
This month, the full Senate and a House committee both passed resolutions calling for Abedini's release and condemning Iran for its persecution of religious minorities.
"We will not sit back and watch as Americans are detained due to their religious beliefs,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a co-sponsor of the legislation that passed by unanimous consent. “Our government must call on Iran to release American Pastor Saeed Abedini and all other individuals detained based on their religious beliefs."
Earnest said today that Obama "also raised the case of Mr. Abedini and Mr. Hekmati" with Iran.
"It’s our view that all of these Americans should have the opportunity to come home," the spokesman said. "And as the statement pointed out, the United States government has made a respectful request of the Iranian regime during this holiday season to consider on humanitarian grounds releasing these three Americans -- or at least releasing the two Americans that we know are detained, and locating the whereabouts of the third, Mr. Levinson, who as of this week is one of the longest-held American captives in history."
Christine Levinson tried to mark that grim milestone in the most meaningful way she could.
"Bob, if somehow you see or hear these words: Stay strong," she said. "You have a new grandson, just a month old. We can’t wait for you to meet him. We love you and will never stop working to bring you home safely."