FLINT, Mich. | In an unexpected move, the Iranian government freed 11 high-profile political prisoners Wednesday, just days before new President Hassan Rouhani is slated to speak at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
The action is unprecedented, said Karim Sadjadpour, a leading researcher on Iran and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I don’t recall an incident when so many high-profile political prisoners were released abruptly and within the same day.”
He added: “What they’ve managed to do is to totally reverse the story: instead of being about political prisoners, the story is now about their release.”
Among those released are activists, journalists and other advocates, including Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer whose imprisonment for allegedly endangering national security and spreading propaganda had garnered much international condemnation.
But a name not on that list of 11 – to the deep disappointment of one family in Flint, Mich. – was Amir Hekmati.
Hekmati is a 30-year-old Iranian-American and former Marine who has been imprisoned in Tehran for more than two years, accused of spying for the CIA.
“I am very happy for the mother of Nasrin Sotoudeh, who must have been suffering like I have been suffering,” Behnaz Hekmati, Amir’s mother, told America Tonight as the news broke. “And I hope that I will also be as happy to have my own son return home soon.”
It’s hard not to appreciate her resilience. Over the last two years, the Hekmati family has endured an array of devastating developments in Amir’s case.
Two weeks into Amir’s first visit to Iran in late August 2011 – a trip to see his grandmothers, his family said – he disappeared. A week later, his family would learn he had been picked up by Iranian authorities, but they would not find out what he was accused of until December 2011, when state television broadcast this video “confession.”
The family was stunned.
“It put a huge dent in my heart,” Amir’s father Ali Hekmati told America Tonight.
“I know my son,” Behnaz added. “They forced him to say that.”
They are not the only ones who think so.
"The Iranian regime has a history of falsely accusing people of being spies, of eliciting forced confessions, and of holding innocent Americans for political reasons," State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland told the press about the video.
But within a month of its broadcast, Amir was sentenced to death in a closed-door trial in January 2012.
Behnaz was allowed to go to Tehran and visit her son the following month. She said he had lost 50 to 60 pounds and grown a very long beard. They cried together.
Then, came hope. In March 2012, Amir’s sentence was repealed due to shortcomings in the case, and a new trial was ordered.
That trial has yet to take place. Behnaz has been able to visit Amir twice more, but his communication to the outside world has been limited.
Last fall, Ali was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He has undergone radiation treatment and chemotherapy, and desperately wants his son’s return.
“It would mean the whole world to have his hands in my hands again,” he said.
Last week, a curious development further complicated the case. The Guardian received and published a handwritten letter addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry that his family said was written by Amir.
“I have been held on false charges based solely on confessions obtained by force, threats, miserable prison conditions, and prolonged periods of solitary confinement,” the letter reads. It goes on to make a bold claim. “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.”
It’s unclear who those two Iranians might be. The letter has not been independently verified and Iran has not responded to its release.
"We are aware that Amir Hekmati reportedly drafted a letter, and that his family believes he is the author,” State Department Spokesperson Beth Gosselin told America Tonight. “We have not had any communication with Iran on the issue of a prisoner exchange.”
The family has hired attorney Pierre-Richard Prosper, a former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues who worked to secure the 2010 release of Reza Taghavi, a California businessman arrested in Iran and accused of financing anti-government terrorists there.
"The diplomatic activity associated with a case like this, as you can imagine, is intense and it's wide,” Prosper told America Tonight. "We've reached out to governments in the Middle East to help us. We've reached out to the United Nations, not only in New York but also branches in Geneva, so what we're trying to do is have a full circle on the issue to really work and talk with the Iranians and try to impress upon them that the right thing to do is to release Amir."
Despite the empty promises and turbulence of the last two years, the family holds hope that President Rouhani, who has expressed the will to have better relations with the U.S. than his predecessor, will turn words into action and release Amir. They have allies in government, and many community supporters.
On Tuesday, the family’s congressman, Rep. Dan Kildee, wrote a letter to Ambassador Samantha Power, the U.S. representative to the United Nations, asking her to engage U.N. colleagues who have diplomatic relations with Iran to “examine all opportunities to facilitate Mr. Hekmati’s release” during Rouhani’s visit.
“To me it’s important that Amir has his government and somebody in his government pushing for his release,” Kildee, who has also raised the issue with Secretary Kerry, told America Tonight. We don’t want him to be forgotten. The hope is that we can make Amir’s case public enough so that Iran knows the world is watching and he’ll be safe.”
The full story of how a boy born in Flagstaff, Ariz., raised in Nebraska and Michigan and who served his country for four years wound up in Iran’s notorious Evin prison is a complicated one. America Tonight will tell it next week. Stay tuned.