At the family’s request, President Obama met with the family of Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini on a previously scheduled trip to the state after his State of the Union address this week.
It was the first time Obama met or spoke with the Abedini family since Saeed’s 2012 arrest by Iranian authorities.
He was convicted in January 2013 for crimes against the national security of Iran, a charge tied to his involvement many years earlier with establishing Christian house churches. Sentenced to eight years behind bars, the 34-year-old has endured torture and is in ill health.
“As we all know, Mr. Abedini has been held unjustly in Iran for a number of years now. His wife lives in Boise, and so it’s an appropriate occasion for the President to visit with her,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Idaho on Wednesday.
Obama went to the state to give remarks on the economy and his State of the Union proposals at Boise State University.
“The thing that we will assure her is something that we have said publicly many times, which is, specifically, that the United States remains concerned about the unjust detention of several Americans in Iran, including Mr. Abedini,” Earnest said. “There are occasionally conversations between U.S. officials and Iranian officials in the context of the P5-plus-1 talks to resolve the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. We routinely, on the sidelines of those conversations, raise the case of Mr. Abedini, Mr. Rezaian, Mr. Hekmati and our concerns about the whereabouts of Mr. Levinson with the Iranian counterparts.”
Marine vet Amir Hekmati was seized in 2011 on a trip to visit extended family. Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter, was arrested without charge or explanation in July. Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent and father of seven, was working as a private detective on a cigarette smuggling case on Kish Island, an Iranian resort port in the Persian Gulf with looser entrance requirements, when he disappeared on March 8, 2007.
“I will say that I believe it’s just within the last 10 days that Secretary of State John Kerry had the opportunity to raise the status of these individuals and their unjust detention with his Iranian counterpart when they were meeting in Europe. So this continues to be a priority of the administration, and the President will discuss that with Mr. Abedini’s wife today,” Earnest added. There was no press coverage allowed of the meeting.
In a statement released by the American Center for Law and Justice, which is representing the family, Saeed’s wife, Naghmeh Abedini, said Obama spent about 10 minutes with her and the couple’s two young children, Jacob and Rebekka.
“President Obama came in and shook our hands and talked to the kids for a moment. Then he sat right in front of me and started speaking of how much of a priority Saeed’s case was and that he was working on getting Saeed home to our family. He mentioned his first call several months ago to Iran’s president Rouhani and how Saeed was mentioned in that call,” Naghmeh said.
“He again reiterated that Saeed’s case was a ‘top priority’ and getting him back to the U.S., to our family, was a top priority. He also said that he meets with Secretary of State Kerry regularly and follows up on Saeed’s case. He also said that Secretary Kerry brings up Saeed every time he meets with the Iranians.”
Naghmeh said expressed her appreciation to Obama and told him she’d been praying for the chance to meet with him and plead for her husband.
“He took my hand, squeezed it, and smiled. I could tell by the look in his eyes he cared,” she said. “As the meeting ended, I said my son Jacob has something to say. Jacob said, ‘Mr. President, can you please bring daddy home for my birthday?’ President Obama asked, ‘When is your birthday?’ Jacob said March 17th, and the president said he would try very hard. He smiled, got up, hugged me again, and said goodbye. He shook the kids hands and left.”
“Meeting with the president of the United States of America and seeing how much he cares about Saeed’s case has given me a renewed sense of hope. I want to thank everyone who has been praying for this meeting to take place and for my husband’s freedom.”
The ACLJ said that on the same day of the Obama meeting, Saeed Abedini was able to receive the first visitor in a month at his prison in Iran.
“Pastor Saeed’s stomach pain – lingering injuries from prison beatings – remains a concern. Pastor Saeed expressed increased amounts of pain. He has still not received the critical medical attention he needs in a private hospital. He needs surgery,” the ACLJ said. “But most of all he needs to be brought home.”
“While his family in Iran is grateful to have the opportunity to once again resume regular visits, it is difficult to see Pastor Saeed continue to suffer.”