A thousand minutes — give or take, just past midnight to 7 p.m. — may seem like a long stretch to sit in silent vigil at the doorstep to the White House in Lafayette Square, but not so much for a Marine vet who has been on some grunt shifts in his life.
Thus Terry Mahoney, who served as a sergeant in the Marine Corps, didn’t think twice about the extended vigil, in which he tried to imagine what it felt like for Amir Hekmati passing his 1,000 days in a tiny cell in Iran’s notorious Evin prison.
He tweeted selfies in the still of the Washington night, greeted the sun with a standard parade of joggers rushing past, and saw the runners replaced by droves of suits wielding smartphones.
And as every moment of everyday life unfolded in the square, nothing changed for a Michigan man falsely accused by the Islamic Republic of conspiracy to commit espionage.
Monday’s vigil brought the Hekmati family to Washington to meet with lawmakers, give a hug or two to all of the players who’ve helped try to bring Amir home, and alert a passerby or two in the park to a cause they may have known nothing about — a proud first-generation American and Iraq war veteran who went to visit extended family in Tehran for the first time, only to find himself arrested without due process and facing a death sentence at one especially harrowing time during his lengthy incarceration.
“If someone would have pulled me aside and whispered in my ear the challenges that were awaiting me, I would have never believed them. If they would have told me that my brother would have been captured by Iranian intelligence officials and held in Evin prison, I would have thought that they had watched too many movies. If they would have told me he would be sentenced to death, I would have thought they were crazy, and if they would have told me this death sentence would be overturned but he would be kept in solitary confinement, away from his family, attorney and the outside world, I would have thought they were out of their minds,” Amir’s sister Sarah told a crowd assembled on the lawn.
“And if they would have told me that while all of this was going on my father would be diagnosed with brain cancer and may not have more than a year to live, I would have thought they were downright cruel,” she added. “Except this isn’t a movie, no one is crazy or out of their mind; cruel, though, yes — this has been a cruel 1,000 days.”
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), the Hekmatis’ congressman, stepped away from the Hill to join both the lunchtime and early evening events, referencing at the latter the bright, sunny, 72-degree day that brought tourists streaming through the park.
One group of tourists, from Colorado, stopped to listen and learn.
“There are very few issues that have allowed this Congress to set aside our otherwise partisan differences, and this is one of them,” Kildee said. “…Members of Congress across the political spectrum have joined with me to call for freedom for Amir Hekmati.”
“Imagine a thousand days — a thousand days out of your life — missing birthdays, missing holidays, missing being with family. We take every day of freedom for granted in this country, we take every day like the beautiful one God has given us today for granted,” the congressman continued. “But for Amir every day is the same — he’s in a small cell, wondering about what will come the next day — will he ever be a free man again?”
Kildee stressed how he’s been impressed “with the calm and dignity that the Hekmati family has demonstrated during this incredibly difficult time, especially during the period since Amir’s father has been ill.”
“So I continue to ask my colleagues in Congress to continue to press for the release of Amir Hekmati so that Iran can show tangible evidence and demonstration of their willingness to join the international community — to do so, the most significant thing they could do would be to release Amir,” he said. “A thousand days. A thousand days away from his family. An innocent man who simply wanted to visit people he had not met before, served his country as a U.S. Marine, provided that duty for us, now it’s our duty to stand up for him.”
Ambassador Pierre Prosper, who served as the ambassador-at-large for war crimes during the George W. Bush administration, has been involved with Amir’s case for “about 900 of the 1,000 days” since his August 2011 arrest.
“We began to engage the Iranian government to explain to them that there’s a mistake, to explain to them that Amir is innocent,” said Prosper, now a partner at Arent Fox who wanted to put his experience dealing with the regime on other human-rights cases toward freeing Amir. “…Unfortunately, the response we received was a response of silence — and in fact while we were getting no information, Amir was also getting no information.”
He noted that not only have Amir’s trials been secret, but his defense was not even allowed to participate or look at the government’s evidence.
“It’s been several years of silence. Nothing from the government. We ask, we ask, we ask and they give us nothing in return,” Prosper said. “They say they’ve had trials, but Amir does not even know that he’s been in a trial.”
“We know that there are members of the government that would like to see him come home but there are others standing in the way… we’re looking forward to the day when he comes home and he can stand up here speaking to you, sharing with you his lessons, his courage, and what we should be doing.”
Mahoney wanted to impress on all of the people who stopped to listen, whether the out-of-towners or curious bystanders, that they could each go home and do something to help.
“I have to keep remembering how much harder it is for him,” he said of his overnight vigil. “He’s a Marine … one of the things about us is we’re all family. Every other Marine at one point in his life or her life answered the question — it wasn’t ‘do you want college money’ or ‘do you want to learn a skill,’ it was ‘do you have what it takes to be a Marine.'”
“And so, without knowing Amir, I know he answered that question…. Amir was an 0311, and that’s the holy grail of Marine jobs. He was a rifleman.… He’s doing fine, and he’s going to come back strong.”
Sarah praised Mahoney’s compassion and his spirit of Semper Fi: “You encompass the meaning of true brotherhood.”
Mahoney not only is a stranger to Amir, but met the Hekmatis for the first time after lobbying on their behalf for much of their arduous journey — standing outside the White House with a sign now and then, alerting passers-by of the American being held in Iran.
“I want you to do something again tomorrow. These events are the easy ones… tomorrow I want you to care,” he told the tourists. “Tomorrow, I want you to go to FreeAmir.org and I want you to write a letter to him.”
After the speeches were done, those folks who just happened upon the scene stuck around to wield Sharpies and sign messages of encouragement to Amir.
The Hekmatis have hope, hewed through a long journey together not unlike so many other American families, that he will be able to read those messages in person. Eventually.
“In 1979, our parents packed their suitcase and left Iran for America. This wasn’t a decision that was easy for them to make, knowing they would be leaving everything they knew and all of their family behind. They made this decision, though, for us, because they wanted to give us a better life,” Sarah said. Behnaz and Ali Hekmati started a family in Flagstaff, Ariz.; supporters held a vigil for the Arizona native in Phoenix on Monday night.
Amir’s grandmother being in Iran “meant that a part of his life was somewhere else,” Sarah stressed.
“The past 1,000 days have taught me a lot about family, about loyalty and about holding onto hope,” she said. “Every day we raise our voice for Amir.… There are days that are better than others, and there are days when I wake up exhausted, never really being able to rest. And those are the days I hold on to hope the tightest.”
“It’s been a thousand days. It’s time for Amir to come home.”
(TO HELP: Amir Hekmati has been in Evin prison for 994 days. Use the hashtag #1000Days to stand in solidarity with Amir on Memorial Day. 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.)