Iran Secretly Convicted Former Marine, Lawyer Says
By Thomas Erdbrink
TEHRAN — Amir Hekmati, a former Marine incarcerated here in August 2011 and sentenced to death on espionage charges that were overturned, was secretly retried by a revolutionary court in December, convicted of “practical collaboration with the American government” and given a 10-year prison term, his new lawyer said this week.
The lawyer, Mahmoud Alizadeh Tabatabaei, also said his client had never been informed about the retrial, conviction or sentence. Mr. Tabatabaei said he learned this information only recently in discussions with judiciary officials, which he shared by telephone with Mr. Hekmati, who is incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin prison, and with family members at Mr. Hekmati’s home in Flint, Mich. They had been able to retain Mr. Tabatabaei in January, part of an increasingly desperate attempt to seek Mr. Hekmati’s release.
Mr. Tabatabaei, who is well connected to Iran’s highest leaders, provided the information in a series of interviews this week at his West Tehran office. They were the first authoritative disclosures in more than two years about the status of Mr. Hekmati’s case, which has escalated into one of the major irritants in the estranged relations between Iran and the United States.
Amir Hekmati has been held in Tehran on spying charges.CreditFreeAmir.org, via Associated Press
Mr. Hekmati, 30, an American of Iranian descent who had been visiting relatives in Tehran for the first time when he was arrested more than two and a half years ago, has repeatedly asserted his innocence. American officials say they have raised the issue in all encounters with members of the Iranian government.
As of Friday, neither Mr. Hekmati nor his lawyer had received any written confirmation of the December conviction or sentence — not an uncommon occurrence in Iran’s legal system, which has been criticized by rights groups and the United Nations for what they call its secret, arbitrary and extrajudicial procedures. But Mr. Tabatabaei expressed confidence about the accuracy of the information.
He also suggested that Mr. Hekmati could possibly be freed in a matter of months, particularly if the United States government released at least some Iranian prisoners, in order to start “removing misunderstandings.” He did not specify any of these prisoners by name or alleged offense.
The Department of Justice says 38 Iranian citizens are currently incarcerated in federal prisons for a range of offenses, mostly on fraud and drug charges but also on smuggling, burglary and violations of national security laws. In the eyes of Iranian officials, however, the prisoner list may be much longer because they view American citizens of Iranian descent as Iranians.
Mr. Tabatabaei said he was sure the initial death sentence given to Mr. Hekmati for spying had been annulled. Now that he knows about the conviction and sentence, he said, he is working on strategies for an early release.
“Under Iranian law, and because of his polite behavior in jail, I am trying to get him released after he has served three years of his sentence,” Mr. Tabatabaei said. Counting time already served, that would be in August.
But he also emphasized that any reciprocal gesture by the American authorities could help. “Yes, yes, this is very important, if any of those prisoners are freed in the U.S., there will be more leniency regarding Mr. Hekmati’s dossier,” he said.
It was unclear whether Secretary of State John Kerry, who has raised the issue of Mr. Hekmati’s incarceration during talks with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, had been made aware of the secret conviction and 10-year sentence. Officials at the State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Hekmati’s death sentence on espionage charges was overturned and a new trial ordered in March 2012. The family had thought the retrial had not taken place, since it was never announced.
A sister of Mr. Hekmati, Sarah Hekmati, said Friday that Mr. Tabatabaei had informed their mother by telephone of the new information on Thursday. “My mom being told about the December trial was news to her,” Ms. Hekmati said. “We didn’t know this ourselves.”
She also expressed confidence in Mr. Tabatabaei, who is considered one of the most influential lawyers in Iran. “The fact that the court is giving him this information is positive,” she said. “He told my mom he’s going to pursue all options available on the table.”
Inside Iran, Mr. Hekmati’s case is viewed as highly political. He is considered a pawn in domestic infighting between hard-liners, who want him in prison, and moderates who want him freed as a good-will gesture to the United States.
“Basically the judiciary, which is under the control of hard-liners, is opposed to Hekmati’s release, but the Foreign Ministry, deeply involved in nuclear talks in which the U.S. plays a crucial role, wants him freed,” a person with knowledge of Mr. Hekmati’s case said, asking to remain anonymous in order to avoid complicating the prospects of his release.
Mr. Tabatabaei has close relationships with a faction of reformists and moderates in Iran’s ruling elite. He represents the family of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and powerful business figure. He is also a lawyer to the opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi and his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, who have been under house arrest without a trial since 2011.
He also is no stranger to the capriciousness of Iran’s judicial system. In June he was sentenced to 50 lashes, four months in prison and a five-year ban on practicing law in a corruption case concerning the children of Mr. Rafsanjani. The case was widely viewed as an attempt by hard-liners to blunt Mr. Rafsanjani’s political influence.
The punishment was annulled by a higher court, and Mr. Tabatabaei’s fortunes changed after an ally of Mr. Rafsanjani’s, Hassan Rouhani, was elected president in June.
While he has not yet met Mr. Hekmati in person, and has not seen all the details of his file, Mr. Tabatabaei said the two spoke by telephone every couple of days.
Mr. Tabatabaei said that he had serious doubts about the validity of the sentence but that his priority was to seek an early release so that Mr. Hekmati could go home, hence he is not necessarily challenging the accusations. Mr. Hekmati’s father, a 63-year-old microbiology professor in Flint who has been afflicted with terminal brain cancer and debilitating strokes, is increasingly worried about not seeing his son.
Under Iran’s Islamic penal code, after the first three years of sentences served by prisoners like Mr. Hekmati, lawyers are allowed to file requests for early release. “Maybe I can get him released even before that, but a lot depends on the Americans,” Mr. Tabatabaei said. “If they show their good will, it will become much easier to get Mr. Hekmati freed.”
Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York, and Matt Apuzzo from Washington.