U.S. Swaps Seven Prisoners for Release of Five Americans by Iran
Iran state TV announced that four Americans held for years by the regime were released in a swap for seven Iranians held in U.S. prisons, while U.S. officials added a fifth name to the list.
“In line with ratifications of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and the Islamic establishment’s general expediencies, four Iranian prisoners, who hold dual nationality, have been released within the framework of a prisoner swap,” Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said on Saturday, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.
According to Iranian media, the American quartet included Marine veteran Amir Hekmati, a Flagstaff, Ariz., native, who was visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 when he was seized and sentenced on trumped-up espionage charges; Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who was seized on July 22, 2014, in a raid on his home and convicted of espionage in a closed-door trial last year; and Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini, who was convicted in January 2013 of establishing Christian house churches while in the country to set up a government-sanctioned orphanage.
The fourth American released was identified by Iranian media as Nosratollah Khosrawi Roudsari.
U.S. officials also floated another name on the released list that had never been mentioned by the State Department: Matthew Trevithick, a U.S. student who last tweeted in November and was reportedly detained by Iran since then.
Since the Iran nuclear deal was inked last year, one American citizen, businessman Siamak Namazi, and one U.S. permanent resident, IT expert Nizar Zakka, were arrested by Iran. Iran's Fars News Agency said they kept Namazi out of the deal because his charges were "not political."
There was also no word about former FBI agent Bob Levinson, who went missing off the coast of Iran in March 2007 while working as a private investigator. Levinson’s family later received images of him in captivity, though the Iranian government has maintained they don’t know who is holding him.
"Cooperating is not enough. Robert Levinson has been left behind. This is not acceptable," tweeted the Levinson family.
Iran's Press TV identified the swapped Iranian nationals as Nader Madanlou, Bahram Mekanik, Khosro Afghahi, Arash Qahreman, Touraj Faridi, Nima Golestaneh and Ali Sabounchi.
Madanlou, a naturalized U.S. citizen and Maryland resident born in Iran, was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2013 for "conspiring to illegally provide satellite related services to Iran in violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, two counts of violating the Iran Trade Embargo, money laundering and obstruction of bankruptcy proceedings."
Mekanik and Faridi, both of Houston, and Afghahi, of Los Angeles, were all members of an Iranian procurement network operating in the United States, according to a 24-count indictment unveiled by the Justice Department in April. The U.S. Attorney called their actions damaging to national security as they illegally exported controlled microelectronics to Iran.
Ghahreman, of Staten Island, is a naturalized U.S. citizen convicted in April of violations of U.S. export and money laundering laws due to his involvement "in a scheme to purchase marine navigation equipment and military electronic equipment for illegal export to, and end-use in, Iran," according to the Justice Department.
Golestaneh, a college student from Iran, was deported to the United States from Turkey last February to face a six-count hacking indictment. Officials charge that he hacked a Vermont aerodynamics company to steal millions in proprietary software.
Sabounchi, a U.S. citizen who lived in Maryland, was indicted in 2013 on charges of conspiring to export, and exporting, American manufactured industrial products and services to Iran, using co-conspirators in UAE and China as a go-between, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which has represented Abedini's family, said they were "delighted this day has finally arrived."
"Pastor Saeed should never been imprisoned in the first place. He spent more than three years in an Iranian prison," Sekulow said. "We’re grateful for the millions of people who have stood with us in our ongoing efforts—both in this country and abroad—to secure his release. We have worked and prayed that this day would finally arrive. And now, Pastor Saeed can return home.”
Naghmeh Abedini, who lobbied before her husband's release before withdrawing from advocacy late last year, citing a history of abuse in her marriage, said today it's "a critical time for me and my family."
"We look forward to Saeed's return and want to thank the millions of people who have stood with us in prayer during this most difficult time," she said.
The Hekmati and Rezaian families were guests of their respective congressmen at Tuesday's State of the Union address.
"We thank everyone for your thoughts during this time," the Hekmati family said in a statement. "There are still many unknowns. At this point, we are hoping and praying for Amir's long-awaited return."
Amir Hekmati's sister, Sarah, told PJM this month that she could "hear the anguish in his voice" when he was able to call from the prison where he'd been held for nearly four and a half years.
Iran's desire for a prisoner swap was apparent soon after Amir was in custody.
The Iraq War veteran warned Secretary of State John Kerry in a letter smuggled out of prison in September 2013 that a swap would only encourage more hostage-taking.
“This is part of a propaganda and hostage taking effort by Iranian intelligence to secure the release of Iranians abroad being held on security-related charges. Iranian intelligence has suggested through my court-appointed lawyer Mr. Hussein Yazdi Samadi that I be released in exchange for 2 Iranians being held abroad,” Amir wrote. “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.”
“While my family and I have suffered greatly I will accept nothing but my unconditional release,” he added.
Amir's father is gravely ill from a brain tumor. Sarah Hekmati said Amir's health was "not good" as he had "been dealing with recurring chronic symptoms, different health concerns."