Iranian-American Amir Hekmati Languishes in Evin Prison, No Retrial in Sight
In the seven months since Iranian-American Amir Hekmati’s death sentence was overturned in Tehran, Iranian officials have ignored his family’s requests for information and has failed to schedule his retrial. Since his arrest, Hekmati’s father has been diagnosed with an aggressive and potentially fatal brain cancer and has been unable to travel to Iran to visit his son.
Amir Hekmati’s sister Sara sat down with the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran for an exclusive interview about her brother, his current status in Iran, his military background, the family’s interactions with Iranian authorities, and why the Hekmatis are breaking their silence about the case.
“From what we understand, [Amir] was being accused of attempting to infiltrate the Ministry of Intelligence, that he had visited the Ministry of Intelligence three times while he was in Iran during his two-week stay in order to spy for the CIA,” Sara Hekmati told the Campaign. “As his family, we have a hard time believing how an American-born young man can just walk up to the Ministry of Intelligence on three separate occasions and meet with people to obtain information.”
Amir Hekmati, a United States citizen whose family is from Iran, traveled to Iran for the first time on August 14, 2011, to visit family. He obtained an Iranian passport and permission to enter the country for three months from the Iranian Interests Section in Washington, DC. After two weeks in Iran, Hekmati was arrested and imprisoned in Evin Prison in Tehran, with no explanation to his family. In January 2012, Iran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced him to death and aired a televised confession in which he claimed to be a spy for the CIA. After international outcry, in March 2012 Iran’s Supreme Court overturned his death sentence and ordered a retrial.
Despite two lawyers and multiple requests for information, Hekmati’s retrial remains unscheduled. The Hekmati family believes Amir is innocent, that his circumstances are the result of a “grave misunderstanding,” and that if he had access to a free and fair trial he could have already been released. His imprisonment has given his family firsthand experience with the power struggle between the Iranian Judiciary and the Ministry of Intelligence, the former granting visitations while the latter prevents them, so Hekmati’s future remains unclear.
“There have been so many inconsistencies and discrepancies in Amir’s case that have made this ordeal very frustrating and overwhelming for us as a family here in the US,” Sara Hekmati told the Campaign. “Even the Iranian media reports have given misinformation by claiming that Amir was captured in December (when he was really in prison since August).”
As to why the Hekmati family has chosen to speak out about the case now after so many months of silence, Sara Hekmati mentioned that their father has recently been diagnosed with brain cancer. “We realize now more than ever that Amir needs to be home with his father. His father needs him home; we all need him home. He has suffered enough in Evin.”
The full, exclusive interview with Sara Hekmati is below.
International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI): When were you informed that Amir was arrested?
Sara Hekmati (SH): Everything that we have learned about Amir’s case has been through whatever the Iranian authorities managing his case would disclose to the media. We were never informed as a family in advance about any of the decisions that were made in his case.
We kept getting dates from Amir’s phone calls that he would be released in one week, two weeks, three days. Finally we stopped hearing from Amir through our relatives. From September 8 until mid-October 2011, any relative that went to Evin to see Amir was told he was not there.
However, after not getting answers from Iranian officials and not hearing from Amir through phone calls to relatives for over a month and a half, we requested that [Swiss] Ambassador [Livia] Leu do a welfare whereabouts check to determine if Amir was in fact at Evin. [After two visits with no information,] on her third visit Ambassador Leu was told by the Foreign Ministry that if Amir was in their prison he was an Iranian citizen and affairs should not concern the Swiss or the US. It was not until the week of October 15th that Amir’s family was informed that his name was found in the computer system at the Revolutionary Court confirming that he was a prisoner in Evin and that he was detained in Ward 209.
ICHRI: How did you communicate with him between his arrest in August 2011 and your mother’s first visit to Iran in January 2012?
SH: Our immediate family in the US had no form of communication with Amir between his arrest and my mother’s visit. Any communication or updates we received were through Amir’s phone calls to relatives in Iran when he was allowed to call. There was never a set time or day for his calls. It was always random and sporadic. In each of his telephone calls he began asking why he did not have a lawyer and when he would be able to speak with one. We tried sending letters to Amir through our relatives in Iran and through Ambassador Leu to give through the Foreign Ministry but our letters were denied because they were in English. We are unsure if my parents’ letters were given to him despite being written in Farsi.
ICHRI: Did Amir ever tell your relatives what his charges were?
SH: From October 15 until the end of November , he would convey in his phone calls to our family that his investigation period was long over and he was sitting in prison with no charge. He had been told that some officials did not feel there was enough evidence against him suggesting he was a spy and that he may have a trial by the end of November to determine his release. We were under the impression that the trial would be to determine when he could come home. We were totally blindsided and shocked when instead of learning about when his trial would be we turn on the television and see his face broadcast on international media that he is confessing to be a spy.
ICHRI: How many times has your mother traveled to Iran, and what did she do there?
SH: My mom immediately went to Iran after they announced the sentence to see Amir, and he had lost so much weight and was so confused and afraid about what was going on. He kept asking when he was going to get a chance to defend himself. He told us not to believe what was being said about him.
My mother has traveled to Iran three times. Once in January, in March, and in June . My mother’s first visit was very productive: she signed all the necessary paperwork to officially make Samadi Amir’s attorney, she provided him with any type of evidence possible to prove that he was not in Iran as a CIA agent. She met with the judges and spoke with them and was able to visit Amir approximately three times on her first visit. Each time was for about one hour, and the prison officials and the court officials were very helpful and hospitable. They let Amir sit with my mother and they brought them tea; they let Amir call me, my sister, and my father for the first time in five months. We got to speak with Amir for a few minutes. My father spoke with Amir for 15 minutes. My father had suffered a stroke the year prior and was unable to travel with my mother, so he had to stay behind in the US.
ICHRI: Who are Amir’s lawyers?
SH: Amir’s Iranian lawyer is Attorney [Mohammad Hussein Yazdi] Samadi and his US Attorney is Ambassador Pierre Prosper. Both attorneys have had a working relationship with one another. Samadi has read Amir’s file but was only able to disclose a general idea of what the accusations were over the phone.
ICHRI: What are the exact charges against him?
SH: From what we understand, he was being accused of attempting to infiltrate the Ministry of Intelligence, that he had visited the Ministry of Intelligence three times while he was in Iran during his two-week stay in order to spy for the CIA. As his family we have a hard time believing how an American-born young man can just walk up to the Ministry of Intelligence on three separate occasions and meet with people to obtain information.
ICHRI: Some have noted Amir’s US military background and questioned why he traveled to Iran at all. Wasn’t he concerned about traveling to Iran?
SH: What many people from Iran do not realize is that the US military was a way for Amir to pay for college and gave him opportunities to learn skills and travel. Prior to leaving for Iran he had informed the Iranian Interest Section in DC that he was a former Marine in order to determine whether they would allow him to visit or not. He had always wanted to visit Iran but wanted to be cautious, [asking], although he was no longer an active duty military official, would it still be a risk to go to Iran? When he saw that he was able to obtain the necessary documents to visit Iran he felt this was a good sign that he had established transparency with the Interest section. Plus our grandmother was getting old and he felt it would be worth the risk to see her one last time in case he did not have that chance again. She could not travel outside of Iran anymore so he felt obligated to try and see her again. It had been over 16 years since he had last seen her. Our family in the US grew up not having any connection to uncles, aunts, and relatives and always felt like we were missing something.
ICHRI: Did his work in the military and other companies have any relationship with Iran?
SH: Amir had nothing to do with game development [unlike some have reported]. He was a translator. He helped develop handheld translation devices for UN peacekeepers and military personnel so that they could communicate with civilians more efficiently. He did not help create video games or have any intention of harming Iran. Amir was a civilian when he went to Iran, he was not a soldier—he was not even employed at the time of his travel to Iran. He was going to Iran to visit his relatives and spent two weeks with them before he disappeared.
ICHRI: When you heard that he was sentenced to death, what was your reaction?
SH: When we heard Amir was sentenced to death is when I had my first panic attack. We were never forewarned about any developments about Amir’s case by officials in Iran. Oftentimes we would find out information about Amir’s case just like everyone else: on the news.
We were blindsided by a confession video of him broadcast on television, where he was stating that he was a spy for the CIA. What upset us the most was that a week prior to seeing the video we had contacted officials in Iran and in the US to see what the status of his case was, and were given no indication that he was being charged as a spy.
ICHRI: How has Amir’s case developed since he was sentenced to death?
SH: Amir’s death sentence was revoked in March 2012. My mom went to Iran in March after learning that the sentence had been annulled to visit him, and although the judges granted my mom visitation, when she would arrive at the prison to see him she was denied visits [by Ministry of Intelligence prison officials]. He was isolated and not allowed contact between the time my mom left in January until March, but her second trip she did not get to see him once.
On her third trip, in June, she was able to see Amir but he was not told that my mom was coming to see him and it was not in an open visiting area like before but behind a glass visiting window and only for 30 minutes. Amir has not been able to see his attorney while he has been staying in prison.
ICHRI: What has Amir’s reaction been to the charges and the detention?
SH: When he met my mother he kept asking why he could not have regular access to his attorney, when he would be able to defend himself. He kept reassuring my mom that everything that was happening was a misunderstanding. He appeared to be in culture shock because he had never spent this much time outside of the US in his life, let alone in a prison, and did not understand the limitations that were being placed on him.
ICHRI: How do you interact with the Iranian Judiciary in following up with his case? Is anybody following up with the case inside Iran?
SH: We try to follow up with Amir’s case with the Iranian Judiciary through our relatives in Iran, through our Iranian Attorney, and through [Iranian] Ambassador [to the UN Mohammad] Khazaee’s office in New York. Ambassador Khazaee has recently been unable to help us any longer due to not having authorization to share details about Amir’s case from officials within Iran. We feel that after Amir’s sentence was annulled in March, that little progress has been made to come to a resolution on his case.
ICHRI: How are Amir’s conditions inside Evin prison?
SH: When my mother would get to visit him he would be brought in a blindfold. From what we understand Amir has been isolated in an area where he was alone or with one other prisoner. No one has been able to have access to him in his prison quarters. He is denied letters from our family and he has not been able to make phone calls since January. He was allowed one phone call recently after six months of no contact.
ICHRI: How is his health?
SH: My mother said he had become very pale when she saw him, like he has not been exposed to natural light for a long time. Amir was always very physically active and fit but when my mom saw him he looked very pale and thin, as though he had lost about 50 pounds; his hair had grown long.
ICHRI: If you could talk to his judge or others who are involved in his detention in Iran, what would you tell them?
SH: Amir has no ill will towards Iran. He always admired Iran’s rich heritage, language, and culture. Amir always dreamed of going to Iran to visit his parents’ homeland and meet his relatives, like many first-generation Iranian-Americans that live in this country who do not have access to family here in the US. This dream was shattered by a grave misunderstanding, and we want to do everything in our power to defend Amir and prove his innocence.
ICHRI: Why has your family been silent, and why break that silence now?
SH: Our family was told not to speak out about his case through Amir’s phone calls [in the fall of 2011]. In each phone call he would insist that our family in the US not contact the State Department or the Swiss Embassy in Tehran or the media because that would make his situation worse. Out of fear for his safety we complied with his requests not knowing whether to believe that he was being told to tell us this or that he may really be released soon if we were to comply with this.
Our silence for the past year was to show the Iranian authorities working on Amir’s case that we want to come to a diplomatic resolution behind closed doors and not allow Amir to be treated like a political representation of the US but instead be treated like a human being. However, as my father’s health gets worse and our questions continue to not be answered, we can only wait so long before we feel like we have exhausted all of our options. We would like to hope that we could leave a diplomatic line of communication open with Iranian authorities, but it is unclear when that would happen and given my father’s condition we did not want things to not move forward before it was too late.
ICHRI: You mention your father’s health. What is his condition?
SH: Our father has been diagnosed with brain cancer and his prognosis is very grim. Amir is unaware of his father’s diagnosis and it would crush him to find out that my father may not survive the treatment he will have to undergo in the upcoming weeks. Some of his surgeons have given him one year to live. This is why our silent diplomacy that we tried to maintain for a year has come to a halt. We realize now more than ever that Amir needs to be home with his father. His father needs him home; we all need him home. He has suffered enough in Evin.
Amir Hekmati’s family has launched a website to provide updates and information to his supporters, available at www.freeamir.org.