Yellow Ribbon Project

Marine Vet Held by Iran for 1,235 Days Refuses to be Brokered in Prisoner Swap


A month ago, U.S. Marine veteran Amir Hekmati pleaded with President Obama to help end his ordeal in Tehran’s Evin prison on trumped-up espionage charges.

Now, held for 1,235 days by Iran, he has appealed directly to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for his release — and revealed chilling details about his captivity in the process.

Amir, born in Flagstaff, Ariz., was visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 when he was seized. “As many other Iranians born in the US, I dreamed of visiting my parents’ homeland and learning more of my Iranian heritage. Unfortunately, after receiving assurances from the Iranian Interest Section in Washington DC, after only three weeks I was arrested, sentenced to death, and subsequently ten years to only discover that the Iranian Interest Section was an accomplice in my arrest. I have been imprisoned for three years now, enduring miserable prison conditions that cause great damage to my physical and mental health,” he wrote.

He spent the first four months in a cell just over three feet by three feet. For 17 months, he “endured a tiny cell with little access to sunlight, little to no contact with family, no access to legal representation, starvation, malnutrition, sensory deprivation, threats, and ridicule and insults to my family and country by Ministry of Intelligence personnel.”

No longer in solitary confinement, Amir was able to dictate the letter to his family over the phone as he did with the letter to Obama.

Still, “conditions remain dire” as Amir is housed with “hardened criminals” among food and energy shortages, while back home in Flint, Mich., his father, Ali, is dying of a brain tumor.

“For the past three years, my family has been receiving emails and phone calls from individuals within Iran proposing prisoner exchanges, even going as far as asking my family to lobby publicly for the release of these individuals,” he wrote to Rouhani. “Considering I have committed no crime and have no connections to these individuals, my family and I fail to see why we should have to lobby for their release or why I should have to spend the next ten years in prison.”

Amir alluded to deal-making propositions in an earlier letter smuggled to Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013, stressing that he would “accept nothing but my unconditional release” as Iranian intelligence officials suggested he be swapped for two of their own. “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 wrote then. “I do not wish to set a precedent for others that may be unlawfully (obtained) for political gain in the future.”

In the Rouhani letter, Amir noted the double-speak of Iran’s foreign ministry claiming it holds no Americans — they consider him Iranian because of his parents, despite the fact that he was born in the U.S. — while suggesting that the Marine could be swapped for Iranians held in U.S. prisons.

“If I am an Iranian citizen, according to [Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Marzieh] Afkham, how can Iran falsely imprison its own citizen and trade him for another Iranian?” He also noted that Afkham has stated publicly that the Iranians they want released have only violated sanctions laws, while individuals contacting the Hekmati family have demanded the release of Iranians held for crimes of “a much more serious nature.”

“…If your government’s claims are true that Iranians being held in the US are innocent and are being held on false pretenses and you consider this wrong, then why has the Iranian government been engaged in the very same wrong repeatedly over the previous decades?”

Amir noted that despite numerous pleas from his family and his hunger strike, “there has been no willingness to resolve my case.”

“I continued to hope that you will accept calls for a goodwill gesture by releasing Americans detained in Iran for political purposes under the context of improving US-Iran relations … I continue to maintain that I’ve committed no crime and have nothing to do with Iranian prisoners in the US.”

He stated that even though his case has been accepted by Iran’s Supreme Court for review for a possible retrial, “certain elements within Iran are not allowing this to happen.”

“I have not lost hope that your calls for better relations with the world, including the US, will result in you taking action and putting an end to what is now the longest incarceration of an American in Iran in history,” Amir wrote.

In his December letter to Obama, Amir asked that negotiations for his release not be included in nuclear talks, which have resumed this week in Geneva.

“My punishment has already far exceeded the charges brought against me, charges that I continue to contest to no avail. I know that the climate between the United States and Iran is delicate. But I should not fall victim to it,” he wrote.

The Marine closes by stressing to Obama, “I am a son, a brother, an uncle and a man. I am an American who deserves basic human rights and his freedom. Instead, I feel as if I have been left behind.”

The Hekmati family said in a statement today that they are “deeply disturbed and shaken” by the revelations in Amir’s letter to Rouhani.

“Despite reassurances to our family by prison officials in Iran that Amir has not been harmed, it is clear that his recent appeals to both U.S. and Iranian government officials are a cry for help… We continue to ask for a resolution to his case given his dire situation and the failing health of his father here in the U.S.”

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), the family’s congressman, said lawmakers “continued to watch and see whether Iran will match its words with actions and release Amir.”

“As Iran, the U.S. and other world powers continue to engage in ongoing discussions regarding their nuclear program, now is the time for Iran to show the world that they are serious about rejoining the global community,” Kildee added. “It can do so by immediately releasing Amir Hekmati.”

Amir served in the Iraq War and was honorably discharged as a sergeant in 2005. He was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War of Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and Sea Service Deployment Ribbon.

Marine colleagues have symbolically joined Amir in rolling hunger strikes out of Semper Fi solidarity.

Last year, his sister Sarah told PJM how proud Amir is of his military service, noting how he would boast about making it through boot camp while a lot of guys got weeded out during the grueling 13-week process.

“He always was so proud as a first-generation American to be able to feel like he was contributing to his country,” she said, adding that his time in the Corps and tour of duty “broadened his horizons” as he served as a linguistic bridge between U.S. and Iraqi officials. “He really felt like he had an important role and he really valued it.”

“He’s very proud of his service — the license plate on the back of his car says ‘Marine,’” she added, noting he was often clad in Marines T-shirts.

Last week, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) sent a letter to Kerry asking that the administration “redouble efforts and aggressively push for the swift release and return home of all Americans illegally detained in Iran” — in addition to Amir Hekmati, pastor Saeed Abedini, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, and retired FBI agent Robert Levinson.

“Amir Hekmati has served our nation honorably as a United States Marine. I ask you to forcefully hold Iran accountable for Mr. Hekmati’s welfare while he is in its custody,” Blumenthal wrote. “…No American citizen should be subjected to the treatment currently being suffered by these individuals and their families.”