Amir Hekmati’s young nephew recently drew a plan for his uncle’s escape from Tehran’s notorious Evin prison: in stick figures, Sami documented how his dad could poke the guard in the eye while he grabs the key and unlocks his uncle’s cell.
If only that imagination could free the decorated Marine veteran unjustly held for 1,309 days and counting by Iran.
And Amir’s family, which has worked tirelessly for his release even when tragedy compounded upon tragedy with his father’s brain tumor, fears how current events could affect his case.
Indeed, the administration has said it’s raising the case of Amir and three other Americans held in Iran — Saeed Abedini, convicted in January 2013 for establishing Christian house churches; Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who has been held without any notification of the charges against him since July; and Bob Levinson, who went missing off the coast of Iran eight years ago while working as a private investigator — at every opportunity, but that’s as much as we know about what hardball the U.S. is willing to play or not play to secure the release of these citizens.
Amir, who was born in Flagstaff, Ariz., and grew up in Michigan, was visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 when he was seized and sentenced on trumped-up espionage charges.
His sister, Sarah, told PJM last week that the process of his appeal is now “really ambiguous.” In September, the family was “really excited” that his case was reportedly moving up to the country’s supreme court for review.
But then in November, nuclear talks were extended by several months “and Amir’s case was completely dropped.”
“We heard no more of it,” Sarah said. “We were given the impression that it had to do with the talks being extended.”
In a December letter to President Obama, Amir stated he was “deeply concerned that my future has become tied to the nuclear negotiations with Iran, with which I have no connection, influence or leverage.”
“I can draw no other conclusion, as each opportunity for a legal or humanitarian remedy is ignored, delayed or denied,” he wrote. “…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.”
Sarah said the family is “holding our breath” to see what happens at the negotiating table in Switzerland, with myriad scenarios running through their minds for Amir and the other hostages.
If a deal is forged, “what incentive does Iran have anymore to keep them, so why not release them?” she mused.
But then again, if a deal is forged, “they’ve received everything they’re asking for and there’s no motivation to release them, either.”
“We’re terrified of this,” Sarah added.
Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in mid-March that the administration will “continue to insist” that Iran locate Levinson and release Hekmati, Abedini, and Rezaian.
Blinken said it’s “something that we’re working on virtually every day.” Levinson’s congressman, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), said as the last days before the deadline for a framework deal with Iran drew near, “‘raising the issue’ at this point can no longer suffice…if anyone is to take Iran seriously, that there is any commitment that they can make that can be adhered to, then the best show of good faith they can make will be to return those Americans.”
“Amir Hekmati is an American citizen who has done nothing wrong, yet continues to languish in an Iranian prison,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), Amir’s congressman, told PJM. “Despite his innocence, Iran has held him captive for more than three years. If Iran is serious about rejoining the international community, they must release Amir so that he can be reunited with his ailing father and the rest of his family in Michigan.”
Sarah Hekmati said the family has not been contacted by Iranian officials for any reassurance that the appeals process is moving. They’ve been told by the lead negotiator at the talks, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, that she personally raises Amir’s case with the Iranians.
“Our question right away is what does that mean?” Sarah said. “And if you’re raising his case, what is the response from Iran? Are you getting a flat, blank stare or are you getting a reaction?”
“Are they just asking about his well-being, his treatment, or what it takes for him to be free? We never get those answers.”
Amir’s treatment alone is great cause for concern, as the family detailed in a recent statement some of what he’s suffered at the hands of the Iranian government.
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.”
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) earlier this month led a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry demanding the immediate, unconditional release of the Americans held by Iran.
“It is unacceptable that as the United States engages with Iran, human rights violations at the hands of Iranian officials go unchecked and Americans languish in Iranian jail cells,” says the letter, also signed by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), James Risch (R-Idaho), David Vitter (R-La.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), James Lankford (R-Okla.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).
“The Iranian government, which is unjustly punishing Mr. Rezaian, Pastor Abedini, and Mr. Hekmati and refusing to assist the search for Mr. Levinson, must be held accountable for its actions. Once again, Iran’s government is showing they will spare no means to stifle dissent and use innocent Americans as political pawns. As history has proven, countries that fail to respect the rights of their citizens seldom respect the rights of their neighbors,” the senators stated.
“Freedom of the press, religion and association are rights that should be guaranteed to all individuals regardless of their nationality. America’s commitment to upholding basic universal human rights requires us to clearly speak out against violations, wherever they make occur. We urge you to bring up these cases during communications with Iran and demand the unconditional release of these Americans.”
The Hekmatis appreciated that show of support, as well as Obama’s call for Iran to release the Americans in his Nowruz message.
Sarah said they’ve been especially touched by the groundswell of support from Amir’s fellow Marines, who’ve been “rallying the troops” and supporting the campaign with bumperstickers and T-shirts.
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.
When Amir has been told about these efforts, he’s left “in awe” and wants to make sure no one is physically suffering for his sake.
“He wants justice to prevail whether or not there’s justice applied,” Sarah said, speaking about how Amir “absolutely” is holding fast to his Marine Corps values behind bars. “He wants to not set a precedent to be used with other Americans …he doesn’t want this cycle to continue.”
In September 2013, Amir wrote a letter to Kerry asking that he not be traded for Iranians held abroad. “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,” he wrote. “While my family and I have suffered greatly I will accept nothing but my unconditional release.”
This month, Amir renounced the Iranian dual citizenship conferred upon him by virtue of his father’s birthplace. Iran’s foreign ministry has said that this detail makes the case none of America’s business. “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,” he said. The family has also released audio of Amir dictating the letter in a phone call from prison.
Sarah hopes the family will receive more transparency about what our government is doing to bring Amir home.
They know at this point that this Marine’s freedom, as well as the captivity of Saeed Abedini, Jason Rezaian, and Bob Levinson, remains tied to the nuclear talks — “whether we like it or not.”