United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Iran Frees Four Americans in Prisoner Swap

The U.S. State Department confirmed on January 16 the release of four Iranian-Americans as part of a prisoner swap with Iran. They were Jason Rezaian, Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari. Iranian State media had initially incorrectly reported that the fourth prisoner was Siamak Namazi, which led to conflicting reports. Khosravi-Roodsari's detention had not been previously reported. All of the Americans left Iran on a Swiss plane on January 17, except for Khosravi-Roodsari who left Iran on January 23. The following are profiles of Rezaian, Hekmati and Abedini.  

Jason Rezaian
 
Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian was detained on July 22, 2014. On Oct. 7, 2015 he reached 444 days in detention – the same amount of time U.S. hostages were held at the U.S. embassy in Tehran from 1979 to 1981. Charges against him include espionage, “collaborating with hostile governments,” and “propaganda against the establishment.” The indictment specifically cited writing to President Obama. According to Iranian press reports, Rezaian allegedly applied for a job with the administration. He reportedly wrote to Obama, “In Iran, I’m in contact with simple laborers to influential mullahs.”
 
On May 26, 2014, Rezaian went on trial in Tehran’s Revolutionary Court, which handles national security cases. He denied the charges against him “I carried out all my activities legally and as a journalist,” he saidIn a press conference on Oct. 11, 2015, Judiciary spokesman Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei confirmed that Rezaian had been found guilty but did not provide details on his sentence or the spefic charges on which he was convicted. Rezaian’s family and colleagues strongly condemned the conviction. The Post's Executive Editor Martin Baron said that “Any fair and just review would quickly overturn this unfounded verdict.” On Nov. 22, 2015, Iran's state news agency announced that Rezaian was sentenced. But the Mohseni-Ejei said he could not reveal further details. 
 
On Christmas Day 2015, Rezaian’s wife and mother were allowed to visit. “This is the first time in the year that I have been visiting him in Evin Prison that I could spend an extended time there and bring him his first home-cooked meal in months,” his mother, Mary Rezaian, said in an email to The Washington Post 
 
Rezaian is a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen. His father moved to the United States from Iran in 1959, and his mother was from Chicago. Jason was born in California in 1976. He moved to Iran to work as a journalist in 2008, and became The Post’s Tehran correspondent in 2012. Rezaian’s Iranian wife, Yaganeh Salehi, a correspondent for the Emirates-based paper The National, was also detained in 2014. She was released 10 weeks later, but the case has not formally been dismissed.
 
The following website and social media accounts are dedicated to Rezaian’s release.
 
Twitter account: @FreeJasonYegi
 
Amir Hekmati
 
Amir Hekmati was arrested in August 2011 while visiting his grandmother in Iran. He was charged with espionage, waging war against God, and corrupting the earth. In January 2012, he was convicted and sentenced to death. He was the first American to receive the death sentence in Iran since the revolution. But in March 2012, a retrial overturned the espionage conviction and instead charged him with “cooperating with hostile governments.” He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.  

On Dec. 30, 2015, Tasnim news agency reported that prison officials were considering a conditional release of Hekmati for good conduct. His lawyer, Mahmoud Alizadeh Tabatabaei told the outlet that he was eligible for probation under Iranian law. In January 2016, Hekmati’s family said that he was allowed to receive medical treatment outside of prison. He was escorted from Evin Prison to hospital for medical tests, including a CT scan, due to a lymph node swelling in his face and neck. 
 
Hekmati is a former U.S. Marine and a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen. His parents were born in Iran. Hekmati was born in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1983 and grew up in Nebraska and Michigan. He served in the Marines from 2001 to 2005, including a six-month deployment to Iraq. He later worked as a government contractor doing linguistic and translation work.
 
In January 2016, Congressman Dan Kildee, whose constituents include the Hekmati family, implored President Obama to mention Amir Hekmati by name during his State of the Union address. Kildee said he would have Sarah Hekmati, Amir’s sister, to be his guest at the address. “Amir Hekmati has been unjustly held in Iran for nearly 1,600 days. It is long past time for Iran to release him so he can be reunited with his family in Michigan,” Congressman Kildee said. “Having Sarah join me at the State of the Union will serve as an important reminder of Amir’s continued imprisonment and the pain their family continues to endure. We continue to press for his release and do everything we can to bring him home.”
 
The following website and social media accounts are dedicated to Hekmati’s release.
 
 
Saeed Abedini
 
Rev. Saeed Abedini was detained on July 28, 2012, and initially imprisoned in September 2012. He had been in Iran to visit family and construct orphanages in partnership with Iranian Christians. His closed trial was held on Jan. 22, 2013. He was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison, reportedly for “undermining national security.”
 
Abedini was born in Iran in 1980 and later converted to Christianity. In 2002, he met his future wife Naghmeh, a U.S. citizen of Iranian descent who was visiting Iran. The couple played a prominent role in establishing 100 underground churches in Iran for 2,000 Christian converts. Iranian Muslims who convert to Christianity are not allowed to worship in established churches, although Christianity is legal in Iran and the constitution stipulates proportionate representation in parliament for various Christian minorities. Under pressure from the regime, the couple moved to the United States in 2005.
 
Abedini was ordained as a minister in 2008. During a trip to Iran in 2009, authorities reportedly threatened him with death for his conversion to Christianity and told him he could only return to Iran if he ceased his underground church activities. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen through marriage in 2010. Between 2009 and 2012, he traveled to and from Iran eight times before his 2012 detention on his ninth trip. His family in Tehran has periodically been allowed to visit him in prison, but he has not been permitted to contact his wife and two children in the United States.
 
The following websites and social media accounts are dedicated to Abedini’s release.
 
Twitter: @SaveSaeed
 
 
Previous Statements from U.S. officials
 
President Barack Obama
 
On March 20, 2015, President Barack Obama issued the following statement on U.S. citizens detained or missing in Iran for the occasion of Nowruz, Persian New Year.
 
The spirit of family is deeply woven into all of the rich cultural traditions of the Nowruz holiday.  It is a time for reuniting and rejoicing with loved ones and sharing hopes for the new year.  Today, as families across the world gather to mark this holiday, we remember those American families who are enduring painful separations from their loved ones who are imprisoned or went missing in Iran.
 
Saeed Abedini of Boise, Idaho has spent two and a half years detained in Iran on charges related to his religious beliefs.  He must be returned to his wife and two young children, who needlessly continue to grow up without their father.
 
Amir Hekmati of Flint, Michigan has been imprisoned in Iran on false espionage charges for over three and a half years.  His family, including his father who is gravely ill, has borne the pain of Amir's absence for far too long.
 
Jason Rezaian of Marin County, California, an Iranian government credentialed reporter for the Washington Post, has been unjustly held in Iran for nearly eight months on vague charges.  It is especially painful that on a holiday centered on ridding one’s self of the difficulties of the past year, Jason’s mother and family will continue to carry the heavy burden of concern regarding Jason’s health and well-being into the new year.
 
And finally, we recently marked yet another anniversary since Robert Levinson went missing on Kish Island.   His family has now endured the hardship of his disappearance for over eight years.
 
At this time of renewal, compassion, and understanding, I reiterate my commitment to bringing our citizens home and call on the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to immediately release Saeed Abedini, Amir Hekmati and Jason Rezaian and to work cooperatively with us to find Robert Levinson so that they all can be safely reunited with their families as soon as possible.  
 
In honor of the familial spirit so strongly enshrined within this holiday and for the Abedini, Hekmati, Rezaian, and Levinson families, I hope this new spring is filled with joyous moments for us all with all of our loved ones by our sides.

Secretary of State John Kerry
 
At an event marking the grand opening of the new headquarters of The Washington Post on Jan. 28, 2016, Kerry discussed the diplomacy behind the release of the American prisoners.
  
"Thank you, and good morning everybody.  And weeks ago – and I did receive the invitation to come here weeks before we knew whether or not Jason would be able to be released, and the others – I really looked forward to being here for this celebration, special celebration of the opening of the building and the moving of The Washington Post.  But obviously, this is particularly sweet for everybody now that Jason is home. 
 
"In the military, as you all know, and in other dangerous callings, the most sacred pledge that you can make is to never leave a buddy behind.  Like most pledges, it’s a lot easier to say than to do.  Carol Morello wrote a wonderful story the other day from Cambodia about the efforts of Bill Gadoury that are 34 years in the doing.  So no matter how great the effort – and it was really special; your folks here at the Post, the senior leadership, did an absolutely remarkable job everywhere, and they were everywhere, and consistent.  And Jason, you have the best bosses you could have in that regard.
 
"But despite all of that effort, for everybody, this gnawed at us.  Because we sensed the wrongfulness.  And we knew that Jason and others were living the consequences, 545 days.
So I will tell you, frankly, that a week ago on Saturday was really one of the days that I enjoyed the most as Secretary of State.  It was also perhaps the most nerve-wracking.  I have to tell you that we had 12 hours of delay working through complications on implementation day, last-minute negotiations.  And then after we had announced implementation day, I came out of that announcement and Javad Zarif came up to me and said, “We can’t find his wife and his mother.”  Now, from some people, that might make sense.  But Iran couldn’t find – (laughter) – the wife and mother?
 
"So there was an enormous amount of activity – very, very, very quickly.  And to the credit of Javad Zarif, he moved, and moved rapidly.  And he got a number of people moving in Iran, including the president’s brother, and they woke up a judge in the middle of the night, got papers signed that needed to be signed to release Yegi, and now we all know the end of this great story.
 
"The same gnawing and anxiety is true for the other families – for Saeed Abedini, for Amir Hekmati, for Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, for Matthew Trevithick – and remains true for the family of Bob Levinson.  And we will continue and do continue to make the same efforts that we have made for everybody else in order to find out what has happened there.
 
"These detentions, each and every one of them, defined for us an injustice.  And the time loss can never be reclaimed.  But Jason, we are all so delighted that you are back now.  And I am delighted to join you here this morning, not just to welcome Jason back, but to celebrate the moving of this iconic institution, The Washington Post, from 15th Street to K Street." 
—Jan. 28, 2016, at The Washington Post Headquarters in Washington, D.C. 
 
On Aug. 28, 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement marking the four-year anniversary of U.S. citizen Amir Hekmati’s detention in Iran. 
 
"This Saturday marks the four-year anniversary of U.S. citizen Amir Hekmati’s detention on false espionage charges while visiting his relatives in Iran.
 
"We repeat our call on the Iranian government to release Amir on humanitarian grounds. The Hekmati family needs Amir - their brother, their son, their uncle - to be home where he belongs. 
 
This is a milestone no family wants to mark, and the Hekmati family has shown inspiring perseverance in the face of this injustice. And as befits a former Marine, Amir has shown tremendous courage in the face of this unjust detention.    
 
"As President Obama said recently in his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, we are not going to relent until we bring Amir home. I join the President in his steadfast commitment to reunite Amir with his family.   
 
"We also call on the government ‎of Iran to release Saeed Abedini and Jason Rezaian, and to work cooperatively with us to locate Robert Levinson, so that all can be returned to their families.
 
On Aug. 29, 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry called on Tehran to release three U.S. citizens detained in Iran and one that went missing on Iranian soil.
 
"The Unites States respectfully calls on the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to release Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, and Jason Rezaian to their families and work cooperatively with us to find Robert Levinson and bring him home.
 
"Today marks the three-year anniversary of U.S. citizen Amir Hekmati’s detention on false espionage charges while visiting his family in Iran.  Mr. Hekmati is the eldest son; he has long been separated from his family and they need him home.
 
"Mr. Levinson went missing in March 2007 on Kish Island.  His family has endured years of painful separation and worry.  We are immensely concerned about his well-being and whereabouts.
 
"On September 26, Mr. Abedini will have been detained for two years in Iran, on charges related to his religious beliefs.  Mrs. Abedini has spoken eloquently about the difficulties her family has faced during this challenging time.
 
"Mr. Rezaian, a reporter for the Washington Post, is being detained in an unknown location.  His love of Iran is seen in his reporting – portraits of the generosity and kindness of the Iranian people.
 
"The United States remains committed to returning all of them to their families, friends, and loved ones.  We ask the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to immediately release Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, and Jason Rezaian and respectfully request the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran work cooperatively with us to find Mr. Levinson and bring him home."
 
Congress
 
On May 11, 2015, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution calling on Iran to immediately release the detained and missing Americans. Concurrent Resolution 16 passed 90-0. On June 15, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a similar resolution, introduced by Dan Kildee (D-MI), who represents the Hekmati family in Congress.
 
CONCURRENT RESOLUTION
 
Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring),
 
SECTION 1. STATEMENT OF POLICY ON RELEASE OF UNITED STATES CITIZENS IN IRAN.
 
(a) Findings- Congress makes the following findings:
 
(1) Saeed Abedini of Idaho is a Christian pastor unjustly detained in Iran since 2012 and sentenced to eight years in prison on charges related to his religious beliefs.
 
(2) Amir Hekmati of Michigan is a former United States Marine unjustly detained in 2011 while visiting his Iranian relatives and sentenced to 10 years in prison for espionage.
 
(3) Jason Rezaian of California is a Washington Post journalist credentialed by the Government of Iran. He was unjustly detained in 2014 and has been held without a trial.
 
(4) Robert Levinson of Florida is a former Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) official who disappeared in 2007 in Iran. He is the longest held United States citizen in United States history.
 
(b) Statement of Policy- It is the policy of the United States that--
 
(1) the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran should immediately release Saeed Abedini, Amir Hekmati, and Jason Rezaian, and cooperate with the United States Government to locate and return Robert Levinson; and
 
(2) the United States Government should undertake every effort using every diplomatic tool at its disposal to secure their immediate release.
 
Deputy State Department Spokesman Jeff Rathke
 
“We’re aware of reports that U.S. citizen Jason Rezaian’s trial has begun in Iran. We continue to monitor this as closely as possible, and we continue to call for all of the absurd charges to be dropped and for Jason Rezaian to be released immediately.”
 
“You asked about the closed nature of the trial….It certainly adds to our concerns and it fits, unfortunately, into a pattern of a complete lack of transparency and the lack of due process that we’ve seen since Jason Rezaian was first detained. So while we call for his trial to be open, we also maintain that he should never have been detained or put on trial in the first place.
 
Now, you asked about contacts as well. We always raise the cases of detained and missing U.S. citizens with Iranian officials on the sidelines of the P5+1 talks and the other interactions that happen in that context, and we will continue to do that until all of them are home.”
 
“We call on the Iranian authorities to release Jason Rezaian immediately. This is independent of the nuclear negotiations. We also call for the release of Saeed Abedini and Amir Hekmati, as well as for Iran to cooperate in locating Robert Levinson, so that they can all be returned to their families.”
 
“The charges against Jason Rezaian are absurd. They should be dropped; he should be released.”
—May 26, 2015, according to the press

Statement by Congressman Dan Kildee on Veterans Day, Amir Hekmati Continued Imprisonment in Iran
 
“Today we thank and honor those who have worn the uniform to protect and defend the United States. I hope that today we also do not forget one veteran in particular, Amir Hekmati, who continues to be unjustly held in Iran for his service to our country.
 
“For Amir, Veterans Day is once again marked behind bars of a prison cell on the other side of the world. He has been separated from his family for over four years and has had to endure unimaginable conditions. Yet despite being the longest held political prisoner in Iran, Amir continues to show incredible resolve in the face of prolonged injustice. He is innocent and has suffered enough. It is time for him to come home to Michigan.
 
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Amir Hekmati and his service to our country.
 
“If Iran wants to taken seriously in the global community, it cannot hold political prisoners like Amir Hekmati. Congress and the world are watching Iran’s actions. It must release Amir and the other innocent Americans it is holding.”
Nov. 10, 2015 in a statement
 
 
Photo credits: Hassan Rouhani by Robin Wright, Jason Rezaian, Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini via Facebook
 

 

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