After Iran Sentences Another American Hostage, State Dept. Can't Guess Why

WASHINGTON -- The State Department said Tuesday that it can't determine why Iran sentenced yet another American citizen to a lengthy stretch behind bars on trumped-up charges this week.

San Diego resident Robin Shahini, 46, a grad student pursuing a master’s degree in homeland security, was visiting his Alzheimer's-afflicted mother in Iran when he was seized in July. There seemed to be no other reason for his detention other than a history of criticizing Iran's human-rights abuses in a handful of Facebook and blog posts and supporting the 2009 Green Revolution.

Close friends told media outlets this week that Shahini has been sentenced to 18 years in prison for insulting the Iranian regime, "insulting sanctities," collaborating with U.S. media and espionage.

A source told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that Shahini's "trial" was three hours long -- but "out of the three hours, [the judge] was away for one hour, apparently to pray, then it took them one hour to fill in the forms and write down details such as his name and last name." The American's counsel only got 15 to 30 minutes to defend him.

Shahini told VICE News by phone from prison that he was arrested by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps while strolling with friends to a restaurant.

“It was a terrifying moment, and they blindfolded me and they took me to the custody and I did not know where I was,” he said. “They were interrogating me every morning, every afternoon, and I was always by myself in my cell.” He asked to see the evidence against him but was denied by his "brainwashed" captors.

The Californian told VICE he planned on launching a hunger strike to protest his sentence.

The news comes just a week after Iran has sentenced an American businessman seized a year ago and his elderly father, along with a Lebanese permanent U.S. resident, to 10 years in prison on charges of spying.

Siamak Namazi, a businessman who was raised in the United States and had been working out of Dubai, was arrested in October 2015 while visiting a friend in Tehran. Baquer Namazi, 80, was arrested in Tehran in February when he tried to secure his son's release, and was taken to the city's notoriously brutal Evin prison.

Nizar Zakka, a D.C. information technology and economic development expert who visited Tehran at the invitation of the Iranian government to speak at a conference on women's entrepreneurship and employment, was seized as he tried to catch a return flight in September 2015. The State Department even helped fund his trip, according to his colleagues.

State Department press secretary John Kirby told reporters Tuesday that the U.S. government is "troubled by reports that Robin or Reza Shahini, a person reported to be a U.S. citizen, may have been convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison."

"We reaffirm our calls on Iran to respect and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, cease arbitrary and politically motivated detentions, and ensure fair and transparent judicial proceedings in all criminal prosecutions consistent with its laws and its international obligations," he added.

Pressed by the Associated Press' Matt Lee on why Iran keeps taking U.S. hostages over and over again -- "despite your best efforts to convince the Iranians and the rest of the world that these payments weren't ransom" -- Kirby insisted, "I can't possibly get into the head - heads of Iranian officials; I can't speak to their motivations on this."

"What I can say, again, is that we do not pay ransom. We don't pay ransom. We didn't then, we don't now, we're not going to change that policy going forward. And we're going to continue to raise our concerns with Iranian officials about the detained citizens there. That's not going to stop," he added. "We're also going to continue to call on Iran to respect and protect human rights and to ensure fair and transparent judicial proceedings. I would remind you that we continue to maintain sanctions related to Iran's human rights abuses. We continue to support the annual UN General Assembly resolution and the mandate for the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran. And we address human rights violations and abuses in the international religious freedom, human rights, and trafficking in persons reports."

"So nobody's turning a blind eye here, but what may be behind this, I don't think any of us know with certainty."

Kirby was asked about Iran reportedly seeking $4 million for the release of Zakka, the Lebanese U.S. permanent resident who was taking the trip to the Tehran conference as a U.S. contractor.

"I haven't seen that report, but again, I go back to what I said: If there is - if the motivation is driven by, quote/unquote, 'ransom,' it's a false motivation," Kirby replied.

When asked how many Americans are being held by Iran, the press secretary said he was "not at liberty to discuss that" and ended the press conference.