As world leaders converged upon New York this week for the 69th United Nations General Assembly, the sister and brother-in-law of a U.S. Marine held for more than three years by Iran came to town to ask members of the P5+1 for help.
Flagstaff, Ariz., native Amir Hekmati was seized by the Iranian government in August 2011 while on a trip, with proper visa documents from the Iranian government, to visit relatives in Tehran. He was originally sentenced to death in a quickie trial on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage, recently retried and sentenced to 10 years behind bars for “collaborating” with the U.S. government.
Sarah Hekmati told PJM late Wednesday afternoon that Islamic Republic representatives know that she has been pounding the pavement on her brother’s behalf. “It’s in their ear that the family is in town,” she said.
Among the nations negotiating with Iran on its nuclear program this week, she said Germany responded to her request and talked with her a bit to hear the family’s story.
“We are cautiously optimistic,” Sarah said of the week’s efforts. “There’s never enough you can do until he’s home on American soil.”
“We’re trying to get to the ears of the Iranian delegation that’s here to take our case back to the judiciary.”
And even if Iran is insistent on not overturning the trumped-up conviction against Amir, the Hekmatis are stressing the humanitarian reasons to send the decorated Iraq war veteran home.
Amir’s father, Ali, 63, suffers from terminal brain cancer and has had three strokes. He filmed a video recently released by the family in which he weakly describes the “rough life” he’s endured lately and addresses his son directly: “It has been a long time since last I’ve seen you.”
“You can understand how difficult this is on so many levels,” Sarah said. “He really felt like this was an opportunity to give a personal plea to them.”
In March, Ali’s doctor appealed directly to the Iranian government in a statement verifying the failing health of Amir’s father. “It is the family’s hope that Amir may be released to be reunited with his father, and to care for his family,” wrote Dr. Jami Foreback, an internist at McLaren-Flint hospital, stressing that “it is unclear how much time Dr. Hekmati has to live.”
In addition to Ali’s illness, Sarah and her husband, Ramy Kurdi, have juggled raising their two young children as they have traveled to rallies and lobbying opportunities to speak exhaustively on Amir’s behalf over the past few years.
Sarah said that when they were leaving for New York, her 4-year-old daughter asked if “we’re going to rescue her uncle.”
“It’s a roller coaster,” she said. “We obviously wake up every day in disbelief that this is real.”
The Hekmatis did receive a bit of a welcome surprise last month when, without warning, Amir was one of more than 40 inmates plucked from the political prisoners section of Tehran’s notorious Evin prison and transferred to Ward 7, a lower security section generally used for white-collar convicts.
Here Amir has access again to books and magazines that the family can send to him through the Swiss. He’s also been able to call home about every other day.
“It’s been huge to be able to hear his voice on a regular basis,” Sarah said, adding that he’s also been able to speak with their ailing father.
It’s naturally difficult for Amir to speak openly with his Iranian captors listening in, but he does catch the “little rays of hope” such as knowing that his family was in New York this week on his behalf.
“He feels helpless, being trapped there,” Sarah said. “He’s trying to give pep talks and reassurance to our dad while he’s stuck in prison. It’s a testament to his nature and personality.”
They’re hoping that the transfer to a ward with less “stigma” than the political prisoners wing is a positive sign as Amir’s lawyer has submitted an appeal. It’s been received by the country’s supreme court but they haven’t yet set a date to hear the case.
And while the family is grateful for an improvement in his living conditions, “it’s still prison and we’re not happy,” Sarah stressed. “We want him to be home.”
Amir was able to issue a brief statement from prison this week.
“Recently, I have been able to speak with my mother on the phone and she shared with me the many kind gestures shown to my family during my imprisonment in Iran. Thank you for lifting my family up while I am a world away, unable to be there for them, especially while my father has experienced many difficulties with his health,” he said. “My mother also told me of the support I’ve received internationally from people of all ages, religions, and backgrounds. I want to thank you all for every thought, prayer, and all of the effort you have taken to raise awareness and support on my behalf.”
“Your support means a great deal to me. Besides giving me strength, it gives me something more powerful – hope. It is this hope that helps me believe that I will return home to Michigan, to my family, and my life. It is with this that I hope I’ll be able to thank you in person one day soon.”
The Hekmatis’ congressman, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), also flew to New York for the UN meeting. On Monday, Kildee sent letters to the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany to appeal for their help in pressuring Iran to release Amir.
“I very respectfully ask that during the United Nations General Assembly, you take the opportunity to convey to your colleagues from Iran its release of Amir, and the other Americans being improperly held in Iran, would serve as a concrete demonstration to the world that it can begin to be trusted to uphold its obligations as a member of the global community,” Kildee wrote.
“Iran’s release of Amir, and the other Americans it is holding, would serve as a tangible demonstration that it is serious about reestablishing its relationship with the world community.”
The Hekmati family also got a chance to talk with UN Ambassador Samantha Power, who tweeted afterward, “Met with family of Amir Hekmati today, an American who has spent over 3 years in an Iranian prison on false charges. He must be released.”
“While Amir Hekmati has been imprisoned in Iran, his father’s health has failed,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) tweeted Tuesday. “
#FreeAmir now so Amir can see him!”
Today is Amir’s 1,122nd day in Iran’s custody, and the family needs help to bring him home.
“This has been such an enormous struggle,” Sarah said, adding that they could use “more people to share his story” and “continue to push our government to do the best they can.”
“We need more citizens of our country to say, ‘Look, what is being done for him?’ …We really can’t do this alone anymore.”
A Change.org petition started by Sarah, which has gathered more than 12,000 signatures, asks President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry “to do everything they can to bring Amir home – to bring him back to the country he defended, to bring him back to the family that loves him, to bring him back to his father. Before it is too late.”
The Amir Hekmati Freedom Fund is also collecting donations for the family’s mounting expenses, and works with the Treasury Department to ensure that funds going toward his legal and other expenses don’t violate sanctions. Amir’s father, a college professor, is no longer able to work because of his illness and his mother has assumed the role of caregiver.
Sarah hopes most for awareness, for Americans to know the story of her brother after more than three arduous years, for Americans to be passionate about fighting for the 31-year-old who is so proud of his service that his license plate says “Marine.”
“It could be your brother,” she said. “It could be your son.”