Marine veteran Amir Hekamti has been unjustly held by Iran for 1,297 days as the Islamic Republic refuses to bend to international pressure to let him go — asserting that since he’s an Iranian citizen, it’s none of America’s business.
But Amir, who was born in Flagstaff, Ariz., and grew up in Michigan, is a dual citizen only because of his father’s heritage. The Iraq War veteran was visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 when he was seized and sentenced on trumped-up espionage charges.
In a recent letter to the Iranian Interest Section in Washington, D.C., Amir makes clear he is 100 percent American and renounces his Iranian citizenship.
Amir writes that he was “surprised” to be given an Iranian passport when he applied for a visa in 2011, but was eager to see the country of his heritage. “Sadly, after only three weeks of my visit, I was falsely imprisoned and put as a part of a propaganda campaign by the Ministry of Intelligence and for nearly 3½ years I’ve endured inhumane treatment and witnessed the devastation this has caused my family and the deteriorating health of my father who is battling with cancer.”
He told of being interrogated and called only “an Iranian by name,” then being “paraded on Iranian television as a major catch and a testament to Iran’s intelligence prowess.”
“After a 15 minute trial, I was sentenced to death by hanging, having quickly been deemed not fit for life” — a sentence later overturned, becoming a 10-year term during a secretive retrial.
“To date, prison officials continue to take every opportunity to address me as spy in hopes of weakening my morale and to escape their own guilty consciences. The Ministry of Intelligence recently denied a request to visit my sick grandmother citing that the Ministry of Intelligence is worried ‘the Americans will take you away by helicopter.’ This while my request was to visit her under armed guard,” Amir continued.
“The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, Mrs. Afkham, has stated that there are no Americans in Iran; however, it is precisely for the reason that I am American that I have been taken hostage by the Ministry of Intelligence and used as a political bargaining tool. Having been born in the US and having spent my entire life there, my citizenship status is clear. My intended visit of only one month to Iran has become 3 years and 6 months, which means that for every day I was allowed to visit my family, has resulted thus far in 42 days of prison under miserable conditions.”
Hence, Amir states in the letter, “it has become very clear to me that those responsible view Iranian-Americans not as citizens or even human beings, but as bargaining chips and tools for propaganda. Considering how little value the Ministry of Intelligence places on my Iranian citizenship and passport, I, too, place little value on them and inform you, effective immediately, that I formally renounce my Iranian citizenship and passport.”
“My Iranian heritage and affinity for the Iranian people will always be a part of me, but I wish to have no ties to an organization that places so little value on my human rights and dignity and is willing to destroy an entire family for simple propaganda purposes.”
The State Department travel warning notes that dual Iranian-American citizens are sometimes prevented from leaving Iran for months if not suffering a fate of incarceration or false charges, like Amir, Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini, and Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. Considering Iranian-Americans to be Iranian citizens only — even if, like Amir, they’ve never previously set foot in Iran — access to the U.S. Interests Section in Tehran is often denied for dual citizens.
The Hekmati family stressed now that Amir has renounced the citizenship of his heritage, he should be deported to the country of his birth: the United States.
For the first four months behind bars, Amir was shackled in a 3×3 cell, then spent 17 months in solitary confinement with cold, smelly water regularly poured into his cell to prevent sleep. He lost 30 pounds off his fit frame in the first four months.
“Amir was forcibly given drugs, such as lithium, by prison officials. Officials would intentionally and abruptly stop this medication to induce a painful withdrawal response,” said a statement from family representatives, which gathered reports of his mistreatment over nearly 1,300 days in Iranian custody. “During interrogations, an electric TASER was used on Amir’s kidneys several times, his feet were whipped with cables and he endured mental torture through threats, insults and humiliations. Amir was forced to watch the torture of other inmates.”
He was also taunted with the lie that his mother had been killed in a car wreck. He wasn’t allowed to speak with his family for 20 months.
“Currently, Amir is in a ward of the prison with no heat—experiencing the harsh winter in the mountains where Evin Prison is located—and often sits in the dark, given the prison’s frequent power outages,” the statement said, adding that he “is housed with hardened criminals and drug dealers, he experiences recurring lung infections, his cell mates have lice, and he is surviving on a diet of only rice and lentils.”
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.
Amir has appealed directly to President Obama to help with his release, as well as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Today at the State Department, press secretary Jen Psaki said she had seen reports of Amir renouncing his Iranian citizenship. “This is obviously a personal decision for him to make. Our position continues to be that the government of Iran should release him immediately,” she said.
Psaki said they “absolutely hold Iran responsible for the treatment of U.S. citizens in custody there and reports of Amir Hekmati’s abuse and mistreatment are deeply worrying.”
“We expect Iran to respect its obligations to treat prisoners humanely, and we hold the Iranian authorities responsible for the welfare of Amir Hekmati and other U.S. citizens detained in Iran. We have raised his case repeatedly with Iranian officials and will continue to do so.”
One reporter asked how, after all of the documenting the State Department has done in human rights reports on how Iran treats all prisoners, Psaki could say she “expects” Iran to treat Amir humanely.
“Should I say instead we hope and this is a case that we continue… to make in our discussions,” Psaki said.