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.
To compound the tragedy, the Hekmatis have an added urgency to the need for Amir’s release. His father, Ali, a professor, has terminal brain cancer.
Timed with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s visit to the UN General Assembly last September, Ali Hekmati sent a letter to the leader pleading for mercy.
“I long more than ever to see Amir’s face. I am now very sick with a brain tumor,” the elder Hekmati wrote. “I ask that you let me see him again, one more time, and so that he may lead our family when I am gone.”
“He is innocent, yet continues to be held against his will, thousands of miles away from his family in Michigan,” Kildee said. “His father, Dr. Ali Hekmati, longs to be with eldest son as he battles brain cancer. His mother, Behnaz, wants nothing more than to embrace her son again. And Amir’s sister, Sarah, yearns to spend time together with her sibling and brother. The Hekmati family wants nothing more than have their family reunited. The Hekmati family would be complete again if after three years, Iran released Amir.”
“Releasing Amir would also be a tangible demonstration to the world that Iran is serious about rejoining the global community. Congress is watching Iran as it says it wants to improve its relations with the world. Amir has been held for three years and has endured enough. It is time for him to come home.”
Kildee spoke at a vigil this morning in Bay City, Mich., marking Amir’s imprisonment.
The White House had not mentioned Amir as of this writing. The State Department issued a statement from Secretary John Kerry that mentioned Hekmati and other U.S. hostages being held in Iran.
“The Unites States respectfully calls on the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to release Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, and Jason Rezaian to their families and work cooperatively with us to find Robert Levinson and bring him home,” Kerry said. “Today marks the three-year anniversary of U.S. citizen Amir Hekmati’s detention on false espionage charges while visiting his family in Iran. Mr. Hekmati is the eldest son; he has long been separated from his family and they need him home.”
“Mr. Levinson went missing in March 2007 on Kish Island. His family has endured years of painful separation and worry. We are immensely concerned about his well-being and whereabouts,” he continued. “On September 26, Mr. Abedini will have been detained for two years in Iran, on charges related to his religious beliefs. Mrs. Abedini has spoken eloquently about the difficulties her family has faced during this challenging time. Mr. Rezaian, a reporter for the Washington Post, is being detained in an unknown location. His love of Iran is seen in his reporting – portraits of the generosity and kindness of the Iranian people.”
“The United States remains committed to returning all of them to their families, friends, and loved ones. We ask the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to immediately release Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, and Jason Rezaian and respectfully request the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran work cooperatively with us to find Mr. Levinson and bring him home.”
Rezaian was taken into custody just after Iran was granted a four-month extension on the nuclear talks with the U.S.
Amir took his case directly to Kerry in a letter smuggled out of prison and obtained by the Guardian in September. After thanking Kerry for lobbying on his behalf, Amir stressed that the confessions on false charges were “obtained by force, threats, miserable prison conditions, and prolonged periods of solitary confinement.”
“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. Iranian intelligence has suggested through my court-appointed lawyer Mr. Hussein Yazdi Samadi that I be released in exchange for 2 Iranians being held abroad,” Amir wrote in the letter confirmed authentic by his family. “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. 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,” he continued. “The very same suffering that the 3 American hikers have recently suffered and many others by these unlawful tactics. My hope is that those individuals within the Iranian government who respect rule of law and international ethics will intervene in my case. As someone of Iranian heritage, I hope that the Iranian people will also support me and call on their government to respect my legal rights.”
Last month, Amir’s mother pleaded with President Obama “to remember Amir.”
“As you, Secretary Kerry and all the other hard-working Americans endeavor in what is no doubt painstaking and detailed work, please remember my Amir. He served his country during its times of peril and now needs his country to do the same for him,” wrote Behnaz Hekmati. “I know you have many challenges at hand, but I also know you read your letters every evening.”
“…I plead that you do not forget Amir, his service, his beautiful smile and his zeal for life.”