Several Iranians who also hold American, British, or Canadian citizenship or residency are now imprisoned in Iran. Half have been picked up since the U.S.-Iran prisoner swap for five Americans or dual nationals in January 2016. Two more – one British and one French – have been released on bail but may still face charges. Some have been accused of undermining national security or spreading propaganda against the state. Foreign nationals with no Iranian background, such as Xiyue Wang who was sentenced in July 2017, have also been detained.
In October 2016, a court sentenced Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi and his elderly father Baquer to 10 years in person on charges of cooperating with the United States against Iran. Three other defendants were also reportedly convicted for collaboration and given similar sentences. Two were referred to by the initials F.H.A and A.A. The third was Nizar Zakka, a U.S. resident and Lebanese national. The State Department issued a statement in response.
President Rouhani discussed detainees in a September 2017 interview with CNN. He emphasized that the judiciary is independent and that his administration cannot interfere. But Rouhani seemed to imply that he has his own opinions. “I do have my own sensitivities vis a vis this issue,” he told Christiane Amanpour.
In his September 2017 address to the United Nations, President Trump raised the issue of detainees. "It is time for the regime to free all Americans and citizens of other nations that they have unjustly detained," he said.
On April 25, 2017, Iran and six major world powers met to discuss implementation of the nuclear deal. On the sidelines, “the U.S. delegation the U.S. delegation raised with the Iranian delegation its serious concerns regarding the cases of U.S. citizens detained and missing in Iran, and called on Iran to immediately release these U.S. citizens so they can be reunited with their families,” according to the State Department. On July 21, the White House issued the following statement on detainees.
Statement on American Citizens Unjustly Detained in Iran
President Donald J. Trump and his Administration are redoubling efforts to bring home all Americans unjustly detained abroad. The United States condemns hostage takers and nations that continue to take hostages and detain our citizens without just cause or due process.
For nearly forty years, Iran has used detentions and hostage taking as a tool of state policy, a practice that continues to this day with the recent sentencing of Xiyue Wang to ten years in prison. Iran is responsible for the care and well-being of every United States citizen in its custody. President Trump urges Iran to return Robert Levinson home, who has been held for over 10 years, and demands Iran release Siamak and Baquer Namazi, who were taken during the Obama administration, along with all other American citizens unjustly detained by Iran. President Trump is prepared to impose new and serious consequences on Iran unless all unjustly imprisoned American citizens are released and returned.
On Nov. 1, 2017, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan resolution calling for the release of American prisoners. “For years the Iranian regime has brutally detained and imprisoned Americans and dual-nationals as a matter of policy, in an effort to leverage the freedom of our citizens for political concessions,” said Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX).
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards arrested at least 30 dual nationals from 2015 to 2017, 19 of whom had citizenship in Europe, according to a Reuters investigation. Western governments are limited in their ability to help their citizens because the Iranian government does not recognize dual citizenship. Dual U.S.-Iranian citizens are in a particularly difficult situation. The Swiss government serves as a protecting power for U.S. interests in Iran through its embassy. But the Iranian government will not allow the Swiss to provide protective services for U.S. citizens who are also Iranian nationals.
Hardliners dominate the judiciary, intelligence agencies and security services. President Hassan Rouhani has had limited impact on human rights issues since taking office. The following are profiles of dual nationals and foreigners that are being held or have gone missing in Iran.
U.S. Citizens and Residents
Princeton University graduate student Xiyue Wang was arrested on August 8, 2016 while conducting research in Iran on the administrative and cultural history of the late Qajar dynasty for his doctoral dissertation. Wang’s family and Princeton University had not previously released information about his arrest in the hope that he would be released.
Wang was born in China and is a naturalized American citizen. He studied in China as a child and for his first year of college. According to The Washington Post, he dropped out after securing a chance to study India before heading to the University of Washington in 2003. He studied Russian and Eurasia studies at Harvard University before working as a Princeton in Asia fellow at the law firm Orrick in Hong Kong in 2008. Wang also worked as a translator for the International Committee of Red Cross in Afghanistan. In 2013, he began his doctoral work at Princeton University.
On July 17, 2017, Wang was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of spying, according to Iran’s judiciary spokesman, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehi, and Iranian media. A U.S. citizen “was gathering intelligence and was directly guided by the U.S.,” Ejehi announced at a weekly press briefing on July 16. He noted the sentence could be appealed, but did not elaborate or reveal the individual’s name.
Mizan Online News Agency, however, identified Wang. In a report citing an anonymous source, Mizan alleged that Wang had been using his academic research as a cover and was working on a 4,500-page digital archive for “the world’s biggest anti-Iran spying organization.” The article said he infiltrated Iran’s national archive and gathered secret and top-secret intelligence for the U.S. State Department, the Harvard Kennedy School and the British Institute of Persian Studies.
State Department officials told journalists that they were aware of the reports about the dual national but that they would not detail efforts on this case or others for privacy reasons. “The Iranian regime continues to detain U.S. citizens and other foreigners on fabricated national-security-related changes," an official said.
Princeton University also issued a statement saying they were “very distressed by the charges brought against him in connection with his scholarly activities, and by his subsequent conviction and sentence.” Princeton has reportedly been working with Wang’s family, the U.S. government and lawyers to help secure his release.
In August 2017, Iranian authorities denied Wang’s appeal. “I am devastated that my husband’s appeal has been denied, and that he continues to be unjustly imprisoned in Iran on groundless accusations of espionage and collaboration with a hostile government against the Iranian state,” his wife, Hua Qu, said in a statement.
In a November 2017 interview with NBC, Qu stated her husband had attempted suicide and that his condition was “very desperate.” She also called on the Trump administration to work with the Iranian government to bring about his release.
On August 23, 2018, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a statement calling on Iran to immediately release Wang. It said that Iran had “no legal basis for the arrest and detention” of Wang and that he had been wrongly accused of espionage. The Working Group obtained a response to the petition from the government of Iran. The Iranian response, however, failed to explain how Wang had cooperated with a foreign state against Iran’s government or “how Mr. Wang’s trial on espionage charges posed a national security threat so serious that it warranted a closed hearing.”
Dubai-based businessman Siamak Namazi was reportedly arrested around Oct. 15, 2015. The detention of Crescent Petroleum’s head of strategic planning has not been officially confirmed, nor have any details regarding any charges brought against him. He was arrested just days before the Oct. 18, 2015 Adoption Day of the Iran nuclear deal.
Namazi is the son of a former governor of the oil-rich province of Khuzestan in western Iran, according to The Washington Post. His family came to the United States in 1983 when he was a boy. He became a U.S. citizen in 1993. After graduating from college, Namazi returned to Iran for military service, which is compulsory there. From 1994 to 1996, he worked as a duty officer with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning in Tehran.
In 1998, Namazi founded Future Alliance International, a Washington D.C.-based consulting company focused on the risk of doing business in Iran. He came to see Iranian-Americans as a potential asset to his home country. “The new generation must be made to feel that no matter how much time elapses they will be welcomed and treated with respect in the land of their parents,” he wrote in 1998 for The Iranian. He suggested that Iran’s recognition of dual citizenship would be a good first step. “Iranian-Americans are a formidable force in helping mend the bridge between Iran and the United States,” he stated in a 1999 co-authored paper.
Namazi later worked as Managing Director at a family consulting firm founded in Tehran that later moved to Dubai, the Atieh Group. In 2005, he was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He also did a stint at the National Endowment for Democracy in 2006. He then worked for a few different energy consulting groups in Dubai. In 2013, Namazi warned that sanctions unintentionally created shortages of life-saving medical supplies and drugs in Iran. He was General Manager of Access Consulting Group, a Dubai-based consultancy focused on energy, before moving on to his most recent position at Crescent Petroleum. Namazi holds degrees from the London Business School and from Rutgers and Tufts Universities.
On July 11, 2016, Tehran’s prosecutor announced that Namazi had been indicted but did not specify the charges. On October 17, the Mizan news agency, the judiciary news service, posted a video that appeared to show Namazi in the hours immediately following his arrest. The short clip was an anti-American montage that showed images of a captured American surveillance drone, Jason Rezaian (a dual-national journalist who was accused of spying for the United States), U.S. sailors kneeling before being detained by Iranian forces and more.
Clip shows detention moment of American-Iranian Siamak Namazi in Iran pic.twitter.com/i9hQbLvxNh— Sobhan Hassanvand (@Hassanvand) October 16, 2016
On October 18, 2016, after being tried without access to a lawyer, Namazi was sentenced to 10 years in prison for collaborating with a foreign government. Five other defendants were also convicted and given similar sentences, including Siamak Namazi’s father Baquer. Namazi and his father are being held in Evin Prison by the IRGC.
Siamak Namazi’s brother Babak spoke out against the sentences, calling them unjust. “My father has been handed practically a death sentence,” Babak wrote. “Siamak’s only crime has been to speak out against the negative effects of sanctions.” Babak was referring to an Op-Ed essay Namazi wrote for The New York Times in 2013.
In April 2017, Namazi’s lawyer, Jared Genser, called on President Trump to secure the release of Namazi and his father. “If not resolved quickly, the Namazi cases could have an outsized impact on the trajectory of Iran-US relations because both men are in rapidly declining health,” Genser stated. “In our view, something happening to the Namazis would be devastating not just to one side, but to both sides.” “For either or both of the Namazi to die on President Trump’s watch would be a public and catastrophic failure of his negotiating skills.”
Siamak Namazi’s health has declined since his arrest following prolonged periods of interrogation and a hunger strike in 2016. In August 2017, a Tehran appeals court upheld the convictions of both Siamak and his father, Baquer. “The Namazis are innocent of the charges on which they were convicted and they are prisoners of conscience, detained in Iran because they are American citizens,” international counsel to the family, Jared Genser, said in a statement.
In September 2017, a U.N. panel of international legal experts reportedly concluded that the imprisonment of the Namazis was illegal and that they should be freed.
On August 26, 2018 the Tehran Appeals Court denied the appeals of Siamak and Baquer Namazi, upholding their convictions of collaborating with the U.S. government. The Namazis U.S.-based lawyer Jared Genser condemned the move as a “cruel and unjust decision” of the court.
Siamak Namazi’s then 80-year-old father, Baquer, was reportedly arrested on Feb. 22, 2016. A former provincial governor and UNICEF representative who worked in several countries such as Kenya, Somalia and Egypt with the majority of his work focused on aid toward women and children affected by war, Baquer Namazi most recently ran Hamyaran, an umbrella organization of a number of different Iranian NGOs.
Namazi’s arrest occurred soon after a prisoner swap between the United States and Iran that coincided with the implementation of the nuclear deal. He and his son have been denied access to their family’s lawyer. The elder Namazi has a serious heart condition, as well as a host of other medical conditions that require medical attention, according to his wife.
In February 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate panel hearing that he was engaged on the issue of Namazi’s detention but could not comment due to privacy considerations.
In April 2016, judiciary spokesman Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi suggested both Namazis could be swapped for Ahmad Sheikhzadeh— an Iranian consultant to the United Nations held in the United States on suspicion of tax and money laundering charges for helping violate sanctions. Ejehi, however, emphasized that he just “heard words from here and there though nothing has been officially conveyed to the judiciary.”
Namazi’s other son, Babak has spoken quite frequently about his father and brother’s imprisonment. In November 2016, in an interview with Steven Inskeep, host of NPR’s Morning Edition, Babak discussed the impact of the ordeal on him and his family.
“As a family, we're devastated. It's just being bombarded for the past year with one horrible event after another. I have half my family ripped away from me. I'm wondering if I will see my father again. It's very horrible to say this, but he has been in essence handed a life sentence. A 10-year sentence for an 80-year-old man is a life sentence. But I have to do all I can to save my father's life and my brother's.”
Babak has since urged President Trump to take “personal responsibility” for negotiating his father and brother’s release. Baquer Namazi and his son Samiak currently remain jailed in Evin Prison.
In June 2017, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres appealed to President Rouhani in a private letter to release Baquer on humanitarian grounds.
In August 2017, a Tehran appeals court upheld the convictions of both Namazis. Baquer’s health has deteriorated rapidly. “He is 81-years-old, previously had a triple bypass surgery, has lost 30 pounds in prison and suffers from shortness of breath, dizziness, bouts of confusion, and recently lost his hearing in one ear,” international counsel to the family, Jared Genser, said in a statement.
On Sept. 5, 2017, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled that Siamak and Baquer Namazi were not granted a fair trial under internationally recognized law and called for their immediate release.
On Sept. 19, 2017, Baquer underwent surgery to receive a pacemaker. One week prior, IRGC guards had refused to take him to the hospital despite being advised by cardiologists, prompting pleas from his family. Three days later, U.N. Secretary General Guterres urged President Rouhani to release Namazi on humanitarian grounds during a meeting in New York.
On Jan. 15, 2018, Baquer was rushed to the hospital after a severe drop in blood pressure and irregular heartbreak. He was granted a four-day medical leave beginning on January 28 and. He was told to report to the government’s medical examiner on February 4, and that his leave would be extended until then. The examiner recommended a three-month leave on medical grounds. But on February 6, Namazi received a call ordering him to return to Evin Prison.
On Feb. 7, 2018, the White House issued a statement calling for the immediate release of Namazi and all other U.S. citizens detained in Iran.
On August 26, 2018 the Tehran Appeals Court denied the appeals of Siamak and Baquer Namazi, upholding their convictions of collaborating with the U.S. government. The Namazis U.S.-based lawyer Jared Genser condemned the move as a “cruel and unjust decision” of the court.
Gholamrez Shahini, who goes by “Robin,” was detained by Iranian authorities on July 11, 2016. Shortly after graduating from San Diego State University, the 46 year old returned to Iran to see his sick mother on May 25, 2016. He stayed at his mother’s house in Gorgan, some 250 miles northeast of Tehran. Shahini did not encounter any issues during the first one and a half months of visit until the sudden arrest.
Shahini’s girlfriend, who spoke to CBS News 8 under the condition that her identity not be revealed, said that he supported a controversial political movement in Iran several years ago. To avoid any issues with authorities, however, he deleted years-old social media posts before flying to Iran. “They searched the house, took his personal stuff. They showed him the paper they had - state-crime against the state,” his girlfriend told local news.
Robin (Reza) Shahini, another Iranian-American visiting family in Iran arrested a week ago. pic.twitter.com/WPJhoMiqnH— IranHumanRights.org (@ICHRI) July 21, 2016
Shahini left Iran as a refugee in 1998 and lived in Germany before moving to the United States in the early 2000s. He had been accepted to San Diego State University’s graduate program in Homeland Security. He was scheduled to return to San Diego on July 25, 2016 and to start classes on Aug. 22, 2016. “He would always tell us that he wanted to get his PhD and wanted to work with the Iranian government to bring peace to that country,” friend Denera Ragoonanan told the Los Angeles Times.
Iranian authorities told Shahini's family he would be released if they did not report his arrest to anyone. After not hearing from Shahini for more than a week, the family decided to go public. On July 21, the State Department said it was looking into the reports. At a news conference the same day, Secretary of State John Kerry declined to comment on the detention.
On July 24, Iran’s judiciary confirmed that an Iranian-American had been detained without revealing a name. The description, however, matched that of Shahini. Ejehi, the judiciary spokesman, said a man was arrested in Gorgan on unknown charges and then referred to Tehran for investigation.
In August 2016, the Intelligence Organization of the Revolutionary Guards confirmed that a dual national had been arrested in July and transferred to the judiciary. Fars News, a conservative news agency, then published an article accusing Shahini of having links to several opposition groups and individuals:
- The Mujahedin-e Khalq - controversial opposition group that participated in the 1979 Revolution but broke with the Islamic government
- Reza Pahlavi - U.S.-based son of Iran’s last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi
- Abdolhassan Bani-Sadr - the France-based former president of Iran who fled after his impeachment
- The Green Movement – movement that emerged to protest claims that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the 2009 presidential election
In October 2016, Shahini was reportedly sentenced to 18 years in prison for espionage and “collaborating with a hostile government.” The judge referred to Facebook posts related to his participation in the Green Movement. Shahini told VICE News that he was planning to go on hunger strike to protest his imprisonment. He refused food for a month, which caused his health to deteriorate.
In April 2017, the Human Rights Activists News Agency reported that Shahini was released on bail of approximately $60,000. The report did not specify if he could leave Iran or what the status of the case was.
Karan Vafadari and Afarin Niasari
Husband and wife Karan Vafadari and Afarin Niasari were arrested by the IRGC intelligence organization in July 2016 and then held at Evin Prison. Details about their case were only published in December 2016. The couple reportedly manages an art gallery in Tehran. Niasari, a permanent U.S. resident, was apprehended by IRGC agents at Imam Khomeini airport when she attempted to visit family abroad, according to Vafadari’s sister. Soon after, Niasari was forced to call her husband and ask him to come to the airport, where he too was apprehended. The next day, they were brought back to their home handcuffed, while IRGC agents destroyed works of art hanging on their walls.
No formal charges were immediately brought against Vafadari and Niasari, however prosecutors alluded to the pair hosting mix gendered parties for foreign diplomats and Iranians where alcohol was consumed. Vafadari, however, is Zoroastrian, and therefore not subject himself to the ban on Muslim consumption of alcohol. Iran permits recognized minorities ― Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians ― to drink alcohol in the privacy of their homes.
Iran's IRGC has arrested Karan Vafadari an Iranian-American & his wife 3 months ago, a family member says.They ran an art gallery in Tehran. pic.twitter.com/JT8gfDvnwN— IranHumanRights.org (@ICHRI) December 2, 2016
Vafadari and Niasari run an art gallery in Tehran, and Niasari also works as an architect. Vafadari, a dual national, was educated in the United States and he has three children that live in New York City. Since being detained, Vafadari has been able contact family members who have visited him a number of times.
In August 2016, Jafari Dowlat-Abadi, Tehran’s Prosecutor General described the Vafadari and Niasari home as “a center of immorality and prostitution.” The original charges were initially dropped due to lack of evidence, but reinstated at a hearing in March 2017, during which the pair was denied legal counsel.
New charges were brought against Vafadari and Niasari in a pre-trial hearing on March 8, 2017. The new charges included attempting to overthrow the Islamic Republic and recruiting spies through foreign embassies. The trial was slated to begin on April 17 but has yet to be held.
In a letter to the judge dated July 24, Vafadari said that the charges against him and his wife were completely false. “It is my belief that judiciary officials arrested us for political and financial reasons, without sufficient investigation or evidence,” he wrote.
In a Jan. 21, 2018 letter, Vafadari stated he had been issued a 27-year prison sentence while his wife Niasari had received 16 years. Vafadari’s sentence included 124 lashes, confiscation of all assets, and a fine, he wrote. He cited charges related to espionage, alcohol consumption, receiving gifts of alcohol, and hosting parties. Vafadari attributed his treatment and sentence to being Zoroastrian and a dual national, with the asset seizure being justified by the court under an unprecedented use of 1928 Civil Code Article 989.
On July 21, 2018, Vafadari and Niasari were released from prison on bail after having their initial sentences reduced earlier in 2018. They were awaiting a final verdict on their appeal request as of late July.
Nizar Zakka, Lebanese national and permanent U.S. resident, was reportedly detained on his way to the airport on Sept. 18, 2015. He is an information and communications technology expert and secretary general of the information and communications technology organization IJMA3. He holds both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in computer science from the University of Texas at Austin. Zakka has lead development projects for corporations such as Cisco and Microsoft, as well has doing contract work for the U.S. State Department.
He was reportedly invited by the Iranian government to Tehran for a business conference focusing on entrepreneurship and has since been accused of espionage for the United States. While accused of having deep ties with the US intelligence and military apparatuses by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, his family has maintained that no such ties exist.
Zakka has been denied access to legal representation or contact with his family. On July 11, 2016, Tehran’s prosecutor announced that he had been indicted but did not specify the charges. On Sept. 20, 2016, Zakka’s lawyer announced that he had been sentenced to 10 years in prison and $4.2 million fine for collaborating against the state. On December 8, 2016, he began a hunger strike. Zakka’s American lawyer, Jason Poblete, said that he was punished for being on hunger strike and “moved to a room with 60 other men and forced to sleep on the floor side by side with common criminals,” according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
Nizar Zakka’s family met with Lebanese officials in late May 2017 to ask for assistance in arranging his release. Lebanese Justice Minister Salim Jreisati promised to find a resolution as soon as possible, according to a statement issued by Zakka’s lawyer.
On June 27, 2017, Nizar began his fifth hunger strike since being imprisoned in Evin Prison. Zakka issued the following statement on June 29, 2017:
“I will not sign a forced confession or accept anything less than my freedom and innocence. I would rather die with my head [held] high. I plead with those in a position to help, including the United Nations Secretary General and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, for my release, and the release of fellow innocent Americans and others being held in Iran.”
After Zakka started his most recent hunger strike, he reported that Evin Prison guards “increased the physical and psychological pressures on him.”
In July 2017, an audio recording was released by Zakka’s family to the Washington Free Beacon. In the recording, Zakka called for international assistance in his release, defended his innocence and vowed to continue his hunger strike "until my death or freedom." Zakka then asked to meet with a name that has been omitted from the recording to provide the gentleman with his will. He ends by expressing his desire to meet with the International Red Cross Committee before his “situation degrades significantly.” He eventually ended his strike after 33 days.
Following the release of the recording, Zakka’s lawyer Jason Poblete issued a statement on behalf of his family, which stated: “The Zakka family asks for continued prayers and support, as well as the unconditional humanitarian release of Nizar.”
On July 3, 2017, Iran confirmed that an appeals court upheld the sentences against Zakka and three American citizens. Zakka had been sentenced to 10 years in prison and a $4.2 million fine.
Zakka's U.S.-based lawyer told the Center for Human Rights in Iran that Evin Prison's director was refusing to allow outside medical treatment for Zakka for an illness that developed sine his imprisonment.
In August 2018, Lebanon’s head of General Security Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim reportedly traveled to Tehran and met with Nizar Zakka. Ibrahim’s visit marked an attempt to pave the way for Zakka’s release and return to Lebanon.
Former FBI agent Robert Levinson went missing on March 9, 2007, during a visit to Kish Island. Initial reports indicated that he was researching a cigarette smuggling case as a private investigator. “He's a private citizen involved in private business in Iran,” the State Department said in 2007. Iran has denied knowing the status or location of Levinson, who will turn 70 in 2018.
Levinson’s family first received evidence that he was alive in November 2010. In a 54-second video, Levinson asked for a U.S. government response to his captors' demands, which have not been publicized. In March 2011, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that new information indicated that Levinson was being held in Southwest Asia, without specifying any particular countries. His unidentified captors sent a set of photographs to his family the following month. Levinson, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, held a sign bearing a different message in each photo. “This is the result of 30 years serving for USA,” one read. In December 2011, Levinson’s family released a statement he had taped a year earlier.
In 2013, the Associated Press reported that Levinson had been working on a private contract for U.S. intelligence. In late 2013, the family acknowledged that his visit to Kish Island was partly related to his contract work for the CIA. Levinson served in the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration for 28 years, where he focused on investigating organized crime in Russia. He retired from the FBI in 1998 and began working as a private investigator. He has seven children.
In January 2016, following a prisoner swap that coincided with implementation of the nuclear deal, Secretary of State John Kerry said Iran agreed to deepen coordination in finding Levinson. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest later clarified that the government had reason to believe that Levinson is no longer in Iran, and had thought so for several years.
In March 2017, the White House issued a statement marking the 10-year anniversary of Levinson’s disappearance. “The Trump Administration remains unwavering in our commitment to locate Mr. Levinson and bring him home,” it said. Also in March, Levinson’s family filed a lawsuit against Iran in a federal court.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson promised to meet with the family of Robert Levinson during questions at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on June 14, 2017. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) asked for Tillerson’s commitment during the Committee’s review of the State Department’s budget for the next fiscal year.
On July 11, 2017, a bi-partisan delegation of lawmakers, led by Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) published a letter to President Trump, which calls upon the President to “re-engage” with Iran over Levinson. “Bob’s return is an urgent humanitarian issue,” the letter states. “It is critical that the United States maintain pressure on Iran to see that he is returned as soon as possible.”
The location and fate of Robert Levinson remains unknown.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested at the airport on April 3, 2016, on her way out of the country after visiting her parents. Iran’s state news agency reported in June 2016 that she was accused of trying to cause a “soft toppling” of the Iranian government. Iranian media reported that she was implicated in anti-government protests following the disputed 2009 presidential election. The 37 year old is a program manager for the Thomson-Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was separated from her 22-month-old daughter Gabriella and taken to an unknown prison in Kerman province some 600 miles south-east of Tehran. Authorities seized Gabriella’s British passport, leaving her stranded in Iran under the care of her grandparents.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard, said that his wife was moved out of solitary confinement after 45 days in prison. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has lived in Britain since 2007, told her parents that her case relates to “national security,” according to The Telegraph. She has not been granted access to a lawyer.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was allowed to see her parents and daughter on May 11, 2016, and was allowed almost daily phone calls with her family until June 5. Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, saw the loss of communication as an indicator that she may have been put back in solitary confinement. In July 2016, he said that she had lost weight, seen her hair fall out and was virtually unable to walk.
On July 11, 2016, Tehran’s prosecutor announced that she had been indicted but did not specify the charges. Richard Ratcliffe told the media that a member of the Revolutionary Guards told the family that his wife would be released as long as the British government reached “an agreement” with them. The U.K. foreign ministry has said it has raised the case “at the highest levels.” Prime Minister Theresa May raised the case in a meeting with President Rouhani on Sept. 21, 2016 in New York.
Richard Ratcliffe announced on Sept. 9, 2016, that his wife was sentenced to five years in prison. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was convicted on secret charges in a Revolutionary Court. A prosecutor reportedly confirmed in January 2017 that the sentence had been finalized. In late April 2017, her final appeal at the Supreme Court was rejected.
In May 2017, Gabriella, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s daughter, had her passport returned to her. Richard Ratcliffe wrote to the Iranian Embassy to thank them for the release of Gabriella’s passport. “I regard her now as no longer formally detained by the Iranian authorities,” he wrote.
On Sept. 20, 2017, British Prime Minister Theresa May urged President Rouhani to release Zaghari-Ratcliffe during a meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
In October 2017, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was charged with two more offenses which, if proven, carry a 16-year prison sentence on top of the five-year prison sentence which she was already serving. The charges allege that Ms. Ratcliffe joined organizations working to overthrow the Iranian government, and attended demonstrations outside of the Iranian embassy in London. Iranian authorities claimed to have a photo proving her participation, found on her private email account.
In October 2017, Iran's Prosecutor General Abbas Jaffari Dolatabadi said that a letter written by David Cameron pleading for the release of Ms. Nazanin was "confirmation that she had links with the U.K. government."
By Nov. 1, 2017, more than one million people had signed a Change.org petition calling for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release. On the following day, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson condemned her imprisonment and offered to visit her.
On Nov. 4, 2017, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was brought before an Iranian Revolutionary Court facing additional charges for spreading propaganda against the regime. Her five-year sentence could reportedly be increased to 16 years.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson apologized on Nov. 13, 2017, for remarks that suggested Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been working in Iran, rather than travelling there for personal reasons. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family and employer, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, rejected Johnson’s initial comments that Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been teaching journalism in Iran.
In December 2017, Johnson travelled to Iran to encourage the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other dual nationals.
On Dec. 22, 2017, the Judiciary rejected reports that Zaghari-Ratcliffe might be released soon after an official database listed her as eligible for early release. The Judiciary stated new charges had been brought against her.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson stated Jan. 11, 2018 that he had raised Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case during a meeting with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
On July 21, 2018, the judge in charge of judicial affairs at Evin prison told Zaghari-Ratcliffe she would not be released from prison under any circumstances until the United Kingdom paid an outstanding debt of $394 million to Iran. The demand referred to a pre-revolution arms deal in which Iran made payment, but the United Kingdom failed to deliver the arms due to the political upheaval.
On August 23, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was awarded a temporary three-day furlough from prison for the first time in two years. During the furlough, she was able to reunite with her four-year-old daughter. She returned to Evin prison in Iran on August 26 to complete her five-year sentence after her furlough extension was refused.
On September 25, British Prime Minister Theresa May called for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case in a meeting with President Rouhani.
Roya Saberi Negad Nobakht
Roya Saberi Negad Nobakht was arrested in autumn of 2013 while visiting Shiraz. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2014 for Facebook posts which allegedly criticized the Iranian regime for being too controlling and Islamic. The 50 year old was arrested upon arrival at the Shiraz airport by the cyber crime intelligence unit of the Revolutionary Guards, with the official charges being “gathering and participation with intent to commit crimes against national security” and “insulting Islamic sanctities.”
Nobakht was taken to Evin prison, denied access to proper legal channels, and reportedly tortured. She confessed to crimes against the state, which were eventually determined to be extracted under duress. She was ultimately sentenced to 20 years in prison, however, was later given a reduced sentence of seven years.
In the seven years prior to her arrest, Nobakht had been living as a housewife in the United Kingdom in the Stockport suburb of Heald Green. She reportedly had no history of political activism, either online or in person, and the sole purpose of her trip to Iran was to see her family.
On October 24, 2016 petitions for Nobakht’s release, as well as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi, were delivered with a letter co-signed by 117 Members of Parliament and members of the House of Lords to the British government. “We have very strong humanitarian and health concerns about their detentions,” the letter stated. “We urge the United Kingdom to use its recently restored relations with Iran to seek the immediate release of these prisoners and return [them] to their loved ones.” Amnesty International sponsored the petition.
Businessman Kamal Foroughi was arrested in May 2011 in Tehran and convicted of spying. The 76 year old had been working as a consultant for the Malaysian national oil and gas company Petronas. His family said that plainclothes officers arrested him at his Tehran apartment and did not show a warrant.
Foroughi was taken to Evin Prison and held in solitary confinement for 18 months. In 2013, he was tried by a revolutionary court and sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment. Seven of those years were for espionage and one year was for possessing alcohol at his home. He denied both charges.
Foroughi’s family has been concerned about Foroughi’s lack of access to medical treatment. In November 2015, however, he was taken to a hospital and received a number of tests. On June 9, 2016, E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that the European Union was “not aware of any changes regarding the conditions under which he is held in prison.” She emphasized that the European Union will use every opportunity to raise his case with Iran.
On July 26, 2016, Kamran Foroughi announced that his father Kamal would be released within a week. “We have just had some great news. 76-year-old Grandpa Kamal’s lawyer visited him last Saturday and told him some news from the Judiciary and Prosecutors’ Office that all the relevant parties have agreed and signed for his release.” On Jan. 1, 2017, Foroughi was granted medical leave outside of the hospital. According to his son, the Prosecutor’s office told Foroughi’s lawyer that he would be released on “temporary leave” (medical furlough) by January 12, but was never released. May 5, 2017 marked six years since Foroughi’s detention.
Abbas Edalat, a British-Iranian university professor, was detained by the Revolutionary Guards on April 15, 2018 while attending an academic workshop in Tehran. Edalat is a professor of Computer Science and Mathematics at Imperial College London and an Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences in Tehran. He has been a professor at Imperial College London since 1989. Edalat helped found the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran in 2005, and has been an anti-war activist throughout his career. He contributed in that capacity to The Guardian from 2007 to 2011 and has been a commentator on Iranian state media.
Edalat’s Tehran home was raided by the Revolutionary Guards, who seized his computer and other belongings. Edalat’s family attempted to post bail for him on April 21, 2018 but was unable. Edalat reportedly refused to post bail on April 25, 2018, demanding unconditional release from wrongful detainment. Edalat has been accused of operating a spy network in Iran.
On June 6, 2018, 129 members of the academic community from 16 countries signed a letter calling for the release of Edalat:
We are deeply concerned about the arrest of our colleague, Professor Abbas Edalat… Many of us have known Abbas for decades as a kind, caring, decent and honourable man, of great intellect and integrity. In addition to inflicting inexplicable suffering on our colleague, teacher, and friend, Abbas's detention is causing a lot of harm to the academic community in the United Kingdom, in Iran, and worldwide. By signing this letter, we are not trying to make a political statement or influence international affairs one way or another. We are expressing concern for our colleague, teacher and friend.
Nazak Afshar, a 58-year-old former employee of France’s Foreign Ministry, was detained upon arrival in Iran on March 12, 2016. She returned to visit her critically ill mother.
Afshar was first arrested in 2009 for “giving refuge to anarchists in the cultural section of the French Embassy” in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election, when authorities used violence to quash mass protests. She appeared as a defendant in a mass trial of those who questioned the election results. No verdict was issued, however, so she was released. Afshar then flew to Paris.
Afshar was sentenced to six years in prison by Judge Abolqasem Salvati of Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court. The charges have not been publicized. After her sentencing, Afshar was eventually released from Evin prison on bail. As of May 2016, she was awaiting a ruling on her appeal against the sentence.
Canadian Citizens and Residents
41-year-old Saeed Malekpour was arrested in October 2008 for allegedly moderating a pornographic website. He returned to Iran to visit his dying father. Malekpour, born and raised in Iran, holds a degree in metallurgical engineering from Sharif University of Tehran and worked for Iran Khodro, one of the country’s largest auto manufacturers. In 2004, he moved to Canada with his wife and was granted permanent residency status, living Richmond Hill, Ontario where he found work as a web developer.
In 2010, Malekpour was sentenced to death for “blasphemy,” but the sentence was overturned a year later. In 2013, he was sentenced to life in prison after showing remorse in court. Malekpour reportedly remains in Evin Prison after eight years. For most of that time he has been denied access to legal representation. He has been denied in-person family visits and prison leave for medical or special family circumstances. He has also been held in solitary confinement and tortured. In 2010, Malekpour wrote a letter to a judge saying that he had been forced to make a confession that had been broadcast on state television.
In January 2017, the Revolutionary Guards blocked Malekpour’s request for furlough. “Initially, we, including Saeed and his lawyer, requested furlough but the prosecutor would not agree,” his sister Maryam told the Center for Human Rights in Iran. “Now, both the prosecutor and the prison warden have agreed, but the Revolutionary Guards is opposed.”
Emergency disaster relief expert Ahmadreza Jalali was arrested on April 24, 2016 in Tehran by the Ministry of Intelligence. The 46 year-old physician and Swedish resident was invited to visit by Tehran University and is now reportedly being held on charges of “collaborating with enemy states.” Jalali has been on a hunger strike since Dec. 25, 2016, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. In February 2017, his wife, Vida Mehrannia, who lives in Stockholm with their two children, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper that her husband had been charged with “the death penalty for collaboration with enemy states.”
Jalali has taught at universities in Belgium, Italy and Sweden. The Italian government said that it “activated its channels of communication with the Iranian authorities to highlight its extreme concern.” The Swedish government has asked for “consular access” to Jallali.
In April 2017, a Flemish newspaper reported that Jalali told his sister that he was forced to sign a confession, for which he will receive the death penalty.
On Oct. 21, 2017, Jalali was convicted of spying for Israel and sentenced to death. In an undated letter released after his conviction, Jalali stated he had been arrested for refusing to spy for Iranian intelligence.
The Iranian Supreme Court ruled on Dec. 5, 2017 to uphold Jalali’s death sentence for espionage. Less than two weeks later, state television aired what appeared to be a forced confession, which was recorded while he was being held in solitary confinement under extreme duress.
As of January 2018, a branch of the Iranian Supreme Court was reviewing the death sentence.
Garrett Nada, managing editor of The Iran Primer at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and Nicholas Cappuccino, a research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, contributed to this roundup.