Statement from the Hekmati Family on Amir's 1000th Day Imprisoned

1000 days, 1000 nights. No one to speak to, no hands to hold, no warm embrace. Locked behind the cold, stone walls of a political prison in a country he had never visited before and never called home: Amir Hekmati stands alone. 

Amir continues to languish in an Iranian prison, approaching nearly 3 years since his initial detainment. Having suffered nearly a year and a half of solitary confinement and unimaginable hardship, a death sentence, and an uncertain future, Amir is guilty of only one thing: a fearless love of family & kinship. 

Over these 1000 days, Amir has had no due process, no legitimate trial, and no legal counsel. All the while, Amir's father battles terminal brain cancer that was diagnosed during Amir's captivity. 

Our family has lived a nightmare, a unusual story you read in the headlines of a newspaper, something that just doesn't happen to you. To know our story, you only need to look around you, and imagine. Imagine but for a moment your most beloved child, grandchild, sibling, uncle, or friend...taken from you without warning, with no promise of a return. Imagine the guilt of enjoying a sunny day, a delicious warm meal, and the comfort of your home, knowing the one you love cannot. Imagine, but only for a moment, because any longer would be unbearable.

Our family is not seeking justice for Amir, we do not dwell upon the days past. We ask only for his immediate and unconditional release, and his safe return home. We offer our respect to the Supreme leader of Iran, and President Rohani, and ask that they consider the urgency of our appeal to release Amir Hekmati.

This Memorial Day, as we look around, we know Amir is not alone. Our family is surrounded by growing domestic and international support. People of all faiths and backgrounds stand united against oppression and ignorance. Joined by a common love of liberty & justice, we assemble as one voice for Amir, as once voice for humanity. 

Memorial Day marks 1000 days of captivity for Amir, a decorated Marine veteran. Last week, for 1000 minutes, fellow veteran Terry Mahoney embodied the words "semper fidelis" as he stood loyally to commemorate Amir's fight for freedom. Terry Mahoney had never met Amir, yet his gesture was touching and selfless, an act of brotherhood that only a Marine would understand. Once a Marine, always a Marine--thank you Terry Mahoney, for breaking the silence for Amir's cause. In the famous words of Martin Luther King, Jr: "In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

What can we do to avoid being silent, to help free Amir? If this message reaches you, please share Amir's story with everyone you know. If you have the means, please support the Free Amir fund. If you have fame or celebrity, please use your influence to spread Amir's message far and wide. Last but not least, and most important of all, if you have the heart, please remember Amir in your prayers. 

Statement from the Hekmati Family on Amir's Secret Re-Trial and Sentencing

It is with a very heavy heart that we receive the news that our son and brother, Amir Hekmati, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to ten years in prison on the charge of "Practical Collaboration with the American government" in a secret trial in December.

This conviction is unsettling specifically because Amir was born and raised in the United States and committed no crime, choosing only to visit Iran to spend time with his ailing grandmother. Prior to receiving permission from Iran to visit, Amir submitted his application to the Iranian interests section in Washington D.C. and openly provided his military history both as a marine, and a contractor. Amir was then assured that he would have no problems entering Iran with this history.

The lack of transparency in Amir's case has made both defending him against these false charges and fighting for his freedom a path full of obstacles, road blocks, and unpredictable difficulties.

In addition to the devastating news of this secret conviction, our family is enduring great hardship as Amir's father, Dr. Ali Hekmati, struggles to recover from a recent stroke and declining health. Dr. Hekmati continues to fight his terminal brain cancer with the powerful will of a father who longs to embrace his son once again before it is too late.

Despite these afflictions, Amir's family continues to show faith in God that after this hardship will come ease. With every new challenge our determination grows, and our hope
never falters. Our family's love and resolve is emboldened by a diverse and growing global community of support that believes in justice, freedom, and humanity.

The Hekmati family respectfully asks senior Iranian officials to review Amir's conviction, and to resolve this grave misunderstanding by granting Amir his freedom and a safe return home.

New York Times: Iran Secretly Convicted Former Marine, Lawyer Says

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, 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.


New York Times: Bid to Free Ex-Marine Held in Iran Cites Father’s Health

By Rick Gladstone for the New York Times:

The doctor for the terminally ill father of Amir Hekmati, the 30-year-old former Marine imprisoned in Iran, has written to the Iranian judicial authorities asking them to release Mr. Hekmati on compassionate grounds so he can return home, according to a copy of the letter shared by the family on Tuesday.

The letter said the father, Ali Hekmati, a professor of microbiology at Mott Community College in Flint, Mich., with a history of diabetes and strokes and an inoperable brain tumor, had been admitted to a Michigan hospital on March 25 after suffering an acute stroke. “It is unclear,” it said, “how much time that Dr. Hekmati has to live with his multiple medical co-morbidities and his terminal brain cancer.”

The rest of the article can be viewed here. The letter from  Ali Hekmati's physician can be viewed here. 


Statement from the Hekmati Family on Amir's 900th Day in Prison in Iran:

Today marks the 900th day of unjust incarceration for our brother and son Amir Hekmati, making him the longest-held American prisoner in an Iranian jail.  Ever.

He left us and Michigan to visit our grandmother in Tehran.

900 long and lonely days that an American citizen and former U.S. Marine has sat in an Iranian prison as an innocent man, many of which were spent in solitary confinement.   Lonely.  Confused.  Innocent.

900 days, almost three years since he was arrested, and nearly two years since a death sentence was annulled due to lack of evidence. And still, he languishes.

900 days missing birthdays, missing his baby niece and nephew grow up, and missing out on all of his ambitious dreams.

900 days missing his precious moments with his father, who is now dying of cancer.

900 days where there is no credible evidence against him.  Though he pleaded his innocence and demanded evidence against him, he was shown no evidence. As he said in his letter that he smuggled out to Secretary Kerry, he is being used as a pawn.

Immediate intervention is needed.

We respectfully urge the Iranian authorities to re-examine his case.  As an interim step, we respectfully ask that he be granted a furlough from Evin prison to see his father one last time.

In 900 days Amir has never given up. He never will.

He knows his country, America, is behind him.  He knows his Marine brethren are behind him.  He knows the citizens of Michigan and his Congressman are behind him.  And he knows his family will never rest until we have our brother and son home.

To make us laugh; to inspire us; to care for us.


A Note of Thanks. . .

We would like to take a moment and offer out sincere thanks to those members of Congress who came together in a bipartisan effort to tell the world to #FreeAmir. We thank you for your continued to effort to raise awareness of Amir's imprisonment in Iran's Evin prison and we thank you for telling the world that Amir is not forgotten, that Amir is missed, and that Amir needs to be released and returned home. 

Those standing with us as we stand together to #FreeAmir are: 

Congressman Al Green

Congressman Alan Grayson

Congressman Alan Lowenthal

Congressman Andre Carson

Congresswoman Barbara Lee

Congressman Beto O’Rourke

Congressman Bill Foster

Congressman Bill Pascrell

Congressman Brad Schneider

Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter

Congressman Chris Van Hollen

Congressman Dan Benishek

Congressman Dan Kildee

Congressman Darrell Issa

Congressman David Cicilline

Congressman David Joyce

Senator Debbie Stabenown

Congressman Denny Heck

Congressman Derek Kilmer

Congressman Donald Payne, Jr.

Congresswoman Donna M.C. Christensen

Congresswoman Doris Matsui

Congressman Eliot Engel

Congressman Eric Swalwell

Congressman Gary Peters

Congresswoman Grace Napolitano

Congressman Hank Johnson

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Congressswoman Jackie Speier

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky

Congressman Jared Huffman

Congressman Jeff Miller

Congressman Jerrold Nadler

Congressman Jim Himes

Congressman Jim McDermott

Congressman Joaquin Castro

Congressman Joe Garcia

Congressman Joe Kennedy

Congressman John Lewis

Congressman John Tierney

Congressman John Conyers

Congressman Joseph Crowley

Congressman Juan Vargas

Congresswoman Julia Brownley

Congressman Keith Ellison

Congressman Keith Rothfus

Congressman Kerry Bentivolio

Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema

Congressman Lloyd Dogget

Congresswoman Lois Capps

Congresswoman Lois Frankel

Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard

Congressman Luke Messer

Congressman Mark Pocan

Congressman Matt Cartwright

Congressman Michael Grimm

Congresswoman Michelle Lujan-Grisham

Congressman Patrick Murphy

Congressman Paul Broun

Congressman Paul Gosar

Congressman Randy Weber

Congressman Rodney Davis

Congressman Ron Barber

Congressman Ron Kind

Congressman Rush Holt

Congressman Sander Levin

Congressman Scott Perry

Congresswoman Shelia Jackson Lee

Congressman Steve Stivers

Congressman Steve Stockman

Congressman Steve Pearce

Congressman Steven Horsford

Congressman Ted Yoho

Senator Ted Cruz

Congressman Tony Cardenas

Congressman Trey Radel

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard

Congressman Walter Jones

Congressman  Xavier Becerra


FreeAmirCongress Latest.jpg

Ailing Father in US Asks Iran Leader to Free Son


By MARIA SANMINIATELLI Associated Press, Linked through ABC News

The ailing father of a former U.S. Marine imprisoned in Iran is pleading for the release of his son in a letter delivered Wednesday to Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, in New York to attend a meeting of world leaders.

Ali Hekmati is asking Rouhani to order the release of his son, Amir, who was arrested in Iran in 2011. The family says Amir Hekmati, who has dual U.S. and Iranian citizenship, was visiting his grandmother. Iran accused him of being a CIA spy and convicted him.

"I long more than ever to see Amir's face. I am now very sick with a brain tumor," Ali Hekmati wrote in the letter, which was delivered to Rouhani's delegation by an Islamic religious official from Michigan who has a personal relationship with the Iranian president, according to a representative for the family.

"I ask that you let me see him again, one more time, and so that he may lead our family when I am gone," Hekmati wrote in his letter. "Amir is a good man. An honorable man. He is not a spy, I can assure you of that."

A spokesman at the Iranian Mission to the U.N. did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The family has cause for hope: Rouhani's moderate tone could signal a warming of relations with the United States. Iran freed dozens of political prisoners in the last week, just as Rouhani was headed to New York for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.

Earlier this month, Hekmati wrote a letter to Kerry describing his "miserable prison conditions" and his belief that Tehran wanted to use him in a possible prisoner exchange.

Hekmati's letter was smuggled out of prison. His sister authenticated the handwriting. The State Department said it was trying to determine Hekmati's condition through Swiss diplomats in Tehran. The Swiss represent U.S. interests in Iran because no U.S. officials are based there. The two countries severed diplomatic relations in 1979.

Two other American citizens are believed to be detained in Iran: Retir

ed FBI agent Robert Levinson and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini.

Jailed in Iran: The Story of ex-Marine Amir Hekmati

By Azmat Khan, Al-Jazeera America  


Also watch parts two and three of "Jailed in Iran," the story of Amir Hekmati, the 30-year-old Iranian-American and former Marine who has been imprisoned in Tehran for more than two years, and his family's intense struggle to bring him home.

On Aug. 29, 2011, 28-year-old former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati was getting ready to go to a feast to celebrate the end of Ramadan with his extended family in Tehran.

It was Amir’s first trip to Iran, motivated, his family says, by a love of travel and a desire to see his aging grandmothers. That day, two weeks into his trip, Amir called up his mother Behnaz back in Flint, Mich., to tell her how excited he was to be in Tehran. He hung up promising to call again later to tell her how it went.

But Amir never showed up at the gathering.

The next day, worried family members went to the family home where he was staying and found muddy footprints but no sign of Amir.

“They find out that his computer, cell phone and all his IDs, wallet, everything was gone,” said his mother, Behnaz.

That day would mark the beginning of more than two turbulent years for the Hekmati family. Within months of disappearing, an Iranian court would sentence Amir to death on charges of spying for the CIA. 

An all-American upbringing

Behnaz and Ali Hekmati, pictured in Salt Lake City with their children Sarah, Amir and Leila.

Amir’s parents, Ali and Behnaz, left Iran for the U.S. in 1979, just as the Islamic Revolution broke out. In fact, Behnaz said she was on the last airplane out of Tehran before its airport closed.

The family settled in Flagstaff, Ariz., where Ali completed his Ph.D. in microbiology and Amir, his twin sister Leila and their older sister Sarah were born.

Amir and Leila were “surprise” twins. Out of fear that an ultrasound could pose risks, doctors and family didn’t realize Behnaz was carrying two children, until after Amir was born.

“My brother always says, ‘I’m your big brother by nine minutes,’” said Leila.

Soon, Ali’s job as a professor of microbiology moved the family to Lincoln, Neb.

“We were the only ethnic, non-white people in our community there, and my parents still made an effort for us to learn about our culture and our heritage,” Leila told America Tonight. “But it wasn’t until our grandmother, my mother’s mother, started visiting when we really learned about the culture. She was a real bridge to our Iranian heritage.”

Amir Hekmati pictured as a boy with his father and sisters.

When the family moved to Flint, Mich., Amir’s grandmother visited from Iran more often, for sometimes six months at a time. She did not speak English, and so the Hekmati children started learning Farsi to communicate with her.

“Amir was really her favorite,” Leila said.

The close-knit family remembers Amir as an athletic boy with a keen curiosity about the world.

“He was a lot of fun, a lot of energy,” his elder sister Sarah said. “He played a lot of soccer, hockey, was on the swim team, tennis, karate. You name it, he’s tried it.”

He was also a family man.

As the only boy in the family until his younger brother was born 12 years later, Sarah joked about how she and Leila would force their brother to play dress up and wear make-up with them.

“We fought all of the time, but he really embraced that big brother by nine minutes thing,” his sister Leila added. “He was always there to back me no matter what. It was unconditional love.”

When they both turned 18 in 2001, Amir and Leila took different paths. She followed her sister Sarah to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and he joined the Marines to offset the cost of college for their parents.

“He never wanted to impose anything on my family,” Sarah said. “He loved traveling and he loved learning languages, and he felt like this was a good opportunity to experience that.”

Amir pictured in his Marine uniform

His parents were proud of his decision to serve his country and gave their blessing.

Amir was selected to study Arabic at the prestigious Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., and not long after the Iraq War began, he was deployed there as an infantryman.

“He was for the most part an interpreter in Iraq, because his Arabic is perfect,” Ali said.

“He was saying he was building schools, mosques, roads, and was in charge of translating for the people making the buildings,” Behnaz added. “He just said, he was proud because he was doing good.”

Amir was in the Marines from 2001 to 2005, spending 2003 and 2004 in Iraq.

“We were worried about him a lot when he was in Iraq,” Behnaz said. “But he was free. He wasn’t in prison. We worry now because I can’t talk to him. I'm more worried now, more than when he was in military.”

The "confession"

Within a week of Amir’s August 2011 disappearance, his uncle in Iran received a phone call from Amir, who said he was in Evin prison.

Amir’s family in Iran went to the prison, in northwestern Tehran, and the prison guards denied that he was there. “They said, ‘I don’t know any name Amir Hekmati,’” said Behnaz.

For the next three months, the family desperately tried to find out where and why Amir was being held.

They tried Iranian channels first. Since the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Iran, they went through the Pakistani Embassy, which has an Iranian Interests Section, to see if there had been a problem in the way Amir’s paperwork had been processed. They received few answers.

Then, they tried reaching out to the Iranian Mission to the United Nations in New York. Though they didn’t get a clear response, the family said they were given the impression that Amir would be home soon.

“We were given this promise that he was just being investigated because he was American and they were looking into the fact that he had served in the military for the U.S., but that he would be released,” Sarah said. “It shouldn’t be a problem.”

Despite the assurances, the family hired attorney Pierre-Richard Prosper, a former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues who had worked to secure the 2010 release of Reza Taghavi, a California businessman arrested in Iran and accused of financing anti-government terrorists there.

The Hekmatis kept Amir’s detention out of the spotlight, fearing that publicizing his case could also politicize it, and make it all the harder to get him home

“That was part of our strategy. We wanted to discreetly work with Iran,” said Prosper, who was hired by the family in November 2011. “We wanted to allow them the room to hopefully come to the right decision.”

But in December 2011, after months of hearing almost nothing, the family was confronted with an unexpected and devastating blow. Iranian state TV broadcast this video “confession” from Amir.

In the choppily-edited package, interspersed with scenes from Hollywood spy thrillers, photos taken off of Amir’s laptop and his own words, a gaunt Amir tells the camera that he was recruited into the CIA and sent to Iran on a mission to infiltrate Iranian intelligence as a double agent.

“My name is Amir Mirza Hekmati,” he said in English. Later, he continued in Persian: “They told me to learn some information on the websites and internal information systems of the CIA, NSA, DIA and NGA that might allure Iranians. I memorized them and wrote that information down on my laptop.”

In voiceover narration and statements from Amir, the video claimed that after his military service ended in 2005, Amir had been recruited into a web of companies that ultimately brought him to his CIA mission in Iran, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), contractor BAE Systems and the gaming company Kuma Games.

Amir’s family says the allegations are baseless.

“I barely recognized him,” Leila said of the video. “He looked like he lost 50 to 60 pounds, easily. And it seemed very forced and scripted. He was using words that I knew he didn’t know,” she added.

“I know it was forced and I know it was lie,” Behnaz said. “His face shows everything. His face shows that he was under pressure and dangers.”

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 January 2012 closed-door trial that lasted only three hours.

“It was sickening,” Sarah said of the time. “We couldn’t believe that it really got to this point. We tried and tried to have advocacy for him. Where was the transparency? Where was the trial that he got to defend himself to show that he was innocent? And who was there to defend him, beside himself?”

In February, Behnaz was granted permission to visit him. She said she was stunned by his frail state.

“He was in very bad shape. He was tiny. He was crying all the time. His face was like chalk: it was white, and long beard,” she said.  “From that day he told me, ‘Mom, don’t believe anything. I'm innocent. I didn’t do anything.”

In March 2012, Amir’s sentence was repealed due to shortcomings in the case, and a new trial was ordered. It has been more than a year and half since then, and a new trial has yet to take place.

“There is no clarity in his case,” Prosper said. “I'd like to say there's been no due process, but there's actually been no process, which is the most difficult and frustrating part.”

Life after the Marines

Upon returning from service in 2005, Amir moved back to Michigan, where he lived for a brief period with his sister Sarah and her husband, Ramy Kurdi.

Amir pictured with his friend Arash Ansari in 2008.

It was at that time that he also reconnected with his friend Arash Ansari. The two had been family friends growing up, but after Amir returned, they became closer, living together in the suburbs of Detroit and turning to one another for business advice.

“I think going through the effects of war has a big impact on any soldier. It takes time to transition back to civilian life. And I know there was a lot of things that had affected him,” Arash told America Tonight. “His personality had been a little different than prior to him leaving, but after I would say a good year, year and half of spending a lot of time together, fun activities and social settings, he was back to the Amir I knew, and maybe even better.”

When he first returned, Amir began working as a mortgage broker for a firm in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. “He was very successful at that,” noted Ansari. “He’s the kind of guy that perfects what he’s working on, and learns every aspect of it, and was very thorough. In no time, he was one of the most successful guys in that office.”

Amir was also entrepreneurial. In 2006, he built on his language skills and began his own translation consulting company, Lucid Linguistics.

“Amir appreciated the organization and the discipline he was able to obtain from being in the military, and it really set him on the right foot to start his own business and establish himself and put his stamp in the world,” said his sister Sarah. “He loved the idea of investing. He loved the idea of being able to travel and utilize his language skills, so he really did a good job of doing that through his business.”

The translation work brought him new opportunities, including work on a five-year, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-financed study of two-way translation systems in tactical military situations.

“That was as basic as reading papers and translating it over to another language, and that being recorded so that they could develop a software device or a digital device that someone who only speaks the one language could easily translate over,” said Ansari.

Ansari described it like the iPhone’s Siri, except to translate. Speak to it in English, get Arabic out. And vice versa.

DARPA told America Tonight it had "no record of employment for Amir Hekmati."

Intelligence experts say that Amir’s language skills and Marine background make him a strong candidate for government work, but an unlikely spy.

According to a 2009 Pentagon contract, Amir worked on a similar language-training project with Kuma Games, a New York-based company that develops reality-based games. The document lists Amir as a point of contact on a project to develop “an effective, cost-efficient, rapidly-deployable and easily updatable language retention toolset for trainers and Soldiers deployed around the world.” Kuma Games did not respond to requests for comment about Amir’s role with the company.

Analysts say Amir’s work with DARPA and Kuma may have aroused Iranian suspicions. In one game developed by Kuma, titled “Assault on Iran,” the player’s mission is to infiltrate a nuclear facility in Iran.

But intelligence experts say that Amir’s language skills and Marine background make him a strong candidate for government work, but an unlikely spy.

In addition to his language-consulting work, Amir also earned a degree in international business from the University of Phoenix.

After three years in Michigan, he left for a new opportunity in Wilmington, N.C., where Leila said he was training new Marine recruits on increasing their knowledge of language and culture.

That work was likely with the U.S. military’s “human terrain system.” HTS, as it’s known, is comprised of teams that use social science researchers to conduct primary interviews and secondary research about local populations, Dr. Christopher King, a former senior social scientist at HTS told America Tonight.

That information is then used by the military and other government agencies to better understand the social dynamics, political issues and other cultural factors about a given population on the ground. King added that HTS does not use its resources to aid the search or capture of terrorists or other “nefarious” individuals.

Gregory Mueller, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, told America Tonight that Amir graduated from HTS training in August 2010, and began serving as a civilian cultural adviser to the military in Iraq a few months later.

Joshua Foust, a former research analyst in the human terrain system’s research center program, says someone who has specialized language skills on a human terrain team, like Amir did, would most certainly be out in the field to a varying degree, talking to the local population and finding out what is happening on the ground in order to relay that information back to the team lead or unit commander.

Amir resigned from the human terrain program in June 2011, according to Mueller. That same month, Amir’s siblings visited Iran, but Amir was working and unable to join.

“He said that really stung,” his sister Leila remembered. Amir had always wanted to visit, but had never been able to while deployed overseas.

So, he made up his mind. Before starting a master’s degree in economics and business management at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, Amir would finally make the trip and meet his extended family in Tehran.

“I can’t wait to see grandma’s smile,” he told Leila before going.

He went to the Iranian Interests Section of the Pakistani Embassy to process the paperwork he needed. Because his parents were from Iran, Amir had to travel to the country on his Iranian passport, obtaining a special visa to exempt him from Iranian military service. According to his family, he also disclosed his military background to the authorities there.

“I can’t wait to see grandma’s smile,” he told Leila before going.

For two weeks, everything was fine.

“He was going to dinner parties. He was calling every day, like, ‘Mom, can you believe it? Can you believe I saw your great uncle?’” Leila said.

“He was so excited, like a giddy child that came out of him that we had never seen before,” added Sarah. “Just the excitement that he had to be around relatives.” 

Inside Evin Prison

Quilter Mary Mahoney was moved by Amir's story and made a quilt with an image of him in prison. “For Amir himself and the prison cell, I worked only in shades of grey and black fabric/thread. For the color in the piece I decided to have a train of ivy coming in the cell window as ivy is said to represent hope. I also shaded the sky a brilliant blue which, for me, represents freedom. I added hash marks for every month Amir has spent in prison and named the piece ‘Hope,’” she wrote on her blog.

Iran’s Evin prison, where Amir has been held for more than two years now, is well-known in the country for Ward 209, the area where political prisoners are kept -- and where human rights groups say they are often maltreated.

Few outsiders ever get a real look in, but those who have been released from the prison tell harrowing stories about their imprisonment.

Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American academic and the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, was held in solitary confinement in the women’s section of Ward 209 for 105 days in 2007, accused of conspiring with the U.S. to bring about a “velvet revolution” in Iran.

“Solitary is very tough,” Esfandiari said of the experience. “You don’t get to see anyone except your interrogator.”

Esfandiari said she would be blindfolded, taken to a room and interrogated for eight to nine hours a day. She would sit and face the wall, unable to see the face of the person questioning her.

At times her interrogators hinted at a tradeoff, she said, raising the idea that her release could come in exchange for the release of Iranian diplomats held abroad. “I made it clear to them immediately that I’m not important enough for the American government to trade me,” she said. “They find all sorts of reasons to give you a bit of hope as a prisoner.”

Esfandiari’s mother was her lone visitor during her time at Evin. Not once was Esfandiari able to meet her lawyer, famed Nobel prize-winning human rights activist Shirin Ebadi.

“I’m a student of Iran. I work on Iran all the time. I was quite aware of the setup, of what it means to be in solitary,” she said. “No matter how much you know, when faced with it, it was 10 times worse. But I think in Amir’s case, everything must have come as a shock to him.”

Evin took its toll on her. She said she had dropped to 85 pounds. But Esfandiari said she assumes the treatment of male prisoners must be different, and worse.

Omid Memarian, an Iranian journalist and blogger, was held in Evin for 55 days in 2004, accused of conveying a negative image of Iran through posts on his blog.

For 35 of those days, he said he was held in a safe house run by Iranian intelligence, where he was subjected to “tremendous physical and psychological pressure to agree to confess” to fabricated crimes.

“They are masters of that,” he said, describing beatings, sleep deprivation, constant light and threats.

“Finally, I gave up,” Memarian said. “Psychologically I was afraid they would push me to a point that was irreversible.”

Like Amir, Memarian’s confession was published in the media.

It is hard to know exactly how Amir is being treated on a daily basis in Evin. His conditions have changed over time. On occasion, he has been allowed books and family visits. But his family said that he had been kept in solitary confinement for months on end. They also say he took part in a hunger strike in September 2012, passing out at one point.

A photo of the letter published by The Guardian, which the Hekmati family believes was written by Amir.

Earlier this month, a possible window into his world at Evin appeared.

On Sept. 11, the Guardian published a handwritten letter addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry that the Hekmati family believes was written by Amir based on the handwriting and his voice.

“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 is unclear who those two Iranians might be.

Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, says there are intelligence and security agents in the country who believe that holding Iranian-Americans gives them some kind of leverage in cases in which Iranians are held in America.  Most of them, he said, are accused of breaking sanctions through the transfer of technology or military goods.

What makes it so complicated, he added, is that the Iranian government has never been transparent about which Iranian prisoners held abroad it wants released.

Still, 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.”

One part of the letter especially stands out to Amir’s family:

“[I] see no reason why the U.S. Government should entertain such a ridiculous proposition. I do not wish to set a precedent for others that may be unlawfully (obtained) for political gain in the future. While my family and I have suffered greatly I will accept nothing but my unconditional release.”

“That’s Amir,” said Kurdi, Amir’s brother-in-law, about the passage. “You can take Amir’s freedom, but you can’t take his nobility and you can’t take his pride. He’s there in prison, and he cares about other Americans traveling. … He’s not going to get his freedom at the expense of anyone else.”

His sister Leila said the passage makes her proud. “I feel he’s very courageous, but I’m scared of the implications.”

The family said it has not received news about Amir’s condition since the letter was published.

“My biggest worry is the isolation that he’s endured,” Amir’s best friend Arash Ansari told America Tonight. “He’s a very happy, fun-spirited, positive, family-oriented kind of guy. To know that he’s been in isolation with no social interaction for such a long period of time is probably worse than physical torture in some ways. I’m just worried that when he comes back, it’s going to be this transition again, and it’s going to be so hard for him.” 

Free Amir

Amir's niece holds a "Free Amir" sign.

Over the last two years, the Hekmati family has suffered immensely.

Last fall, Amir’s father Ali got sick. His speech began to slur and he had a stroke. Ali had developed a brain tumor. He had surgery to remove it, but the chemotherapy and radiation treatments have prevented him from going to Iran to see his son.

“Mostly emotionally, it hurts him more than chemotherapy,” Behnaz said. “He’s under chemotherapy, but thinking about Amir.”

“Every day he’s in my mind,” said Ali. “Every day, every night.”

Sarah says she struggles to explain to her two children where their uncle is. “Amir embraced his role as the uncle to my two kids so much,” she said. “My son remembers Amir so vividly and always asks about him. He says, ‘Where’s uncle Amir and why have they taken him?’ It’s really emotional for us to have to explain to a five-year-old what’s going on. We just have to keep holding on to hope that we can tell him your uncle is going come home and we’re going to keep fighting for him to come home.”

The family's main goal is to raise awareness. They have put on fundraisers, benefit dinners and art exhibitions in cities like Detroit and Chicago, while running social media campaigns and website.

One photo project, titled “Jailed Humanity,” took place at a former prison in Detroit, where family and friends of Amir gathered in cells to reenact the pain Amir is going through, and their own feelings of imprisonment.

“It was the most emotional and moving photo shoot that I have done to date,” said Ashley Block, the Michigan photographer who took their photos. “Just seeing the emotion, with his friends involved from across the state, hearing different stories and seeing just how Amir’s friendship has affected so many people on so many different levels.”


Amir Hekmati's friends and family have launched a visual campaign featuring themselves, members of Congress and supporters to raise awareness of his incarceration. All images courtesy of Ashley Block Photography.

Sarah, Amir’s older sister, says the response the family has been getting leaves them speechless.

“Whenever we have our moments of feeling down – like, ‘How much longer are we going to be able to deal with this? How much more of this can we take?’ -- we get lifted up by some stranger.”

Beyond community support, the Hekmati family also has allies in government.


Their congressman, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), in addition to writing letters to Secretary of State John Kerry and United Nations representative Samantha Power, started a bipartisan campaign to collectphotos of members of Congress calling for Amir’s release ahead of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s speech this week at the UN General Assembly. Currently, there are 75 photos of members of Congress (and counting), but the campaign will not end with Rouhani’s visit. Kildee said he will not stop until Amir is home.

“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,” Kildee told America Tonight.

And Prosper said he is working the diplomatic channels behind-the-scenes.

"The diplomatic activity associated with a case like this, as you can imagine, is intense and it's wide,” he 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."

Prosper and the family sees hope in the election of President Rouhani, who has expressed his desire for Iran to have better relations with the U.S.

“We think that if he stays true to his words, and has the opportunity examine this matter, he will understand that the right thing to do is to release Amir, and he'll also understand that it will be a great way to bring meaning to his platform,” Prosper said.

The State Department has repeatedly called for Hekmati’s release, and that of two other U.S. citizens detained or missing in Iran, Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American Christian pastor, and Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent.

“We again ask Iranian authorities to permit a visit by officials of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran to determine the well-being of Mr. Hekmati and to release him,” State Department spokesperson Gosselin told America Tonight.

These efforts are complicated by the fact that Iran does not recognize Amir’s American citizenship because he traveled to the country on his Iranian passport.

“If you are a dual national, the Iranian regime treats you as one of its own,” said Gissou Nia, the director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. “There’s very different treatment than someone who only holds American or Canadian citizenship.”

Yesterday, just ahead of President Rouhani’s UN visit, Iran announced the release of Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, an Iranian-Canadian sentenced to death on espionage charges. Nia said the move came as a real surprise to her, but was encouraging for other dual nationals being held in Iran. Ghassemi-Shall’s arrest in 2008 prompted an international outcry, including a letter-writing campaign by Amnesty International.

“Personally I always believe that the more pressure the international community can bring, the more it will affect the Iranian authorities,” said Esfandiari, who credits the international response for her own release in 2007. “They don’t like an international outcry. They don’t like to be pointed at.”

Neither the Iranian Interest Section nor the Iranian Mission to the UN returned requests for comment. President Rouhani has not yet addressed Amir’s case publicly.

Meanwhile, the Hekmati family soldiers on.

“His voice is always in our ears. Always. He would always call me every night in Persian and say, 'Mama jaan, mama jaan, [mother dear], I love you,'” his mother Behnaz said. “I suffer a lot. It’s too much. Every day. Every day. When is he coming home?”

Asked what it would mean for him to be able to see his son again, Ali replied, “Oh that would mean the whole world. I pray every day to have both of his hands in my hands. That I will be able to hug him. And kiss him. And tell him how much I love him and how much I miss him.”

Jailed American's family appeals to visiting Iranian president

By Scott Bronstein and Drew Griffin, CNN Investigations

The video that accompanies this article can be found in our News -> video section.

(CNN) -- The family of former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati has a message for Iran's new president: Their American son is not a spy, has never been one, and he should be released immediately from prison in Iran.

"I just ask -- I just want the president to consider us as an Iranian family, and that my husband is sick, and me as a mother I've suffered a lot, more than two years," said Behnaz Hekmati, Amir's mother, speaking in halting English.

The family made a plea in an exclusive interview to CNN on the eve of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's first visit to the United States, where he will attend the U.N. General Assembly.

Amir Hekmati's father, Ali, is ailing with brain cancer, and the family is imploring the Iranian government to release their son before time runs out for the elder Hekmati.

"Please just let Amir come home," said Behnaz Hekmati. "Amir didn't do any crime, he didn't do anything. Just let him to come home and make his family happy again."

This month, Amir Hekmati, 30, wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry saying a confession he made to the spying charges leveled by Iran were "false" and "based solely on confessions obtained by force, threats, miserable prison conditions, and prolonged periods of solitary confinement."

Hekmati's family said he had gone to Iran to visit his grandmother when he was arrested in August 2011, accused by Iran's Intelligence Ministry of working as a CIA agent.

Amir Hekmati was born in Arizona and raised in Flint, Michigan, after his parents emigrated from Iran.

Born in Flagstaff, Arizona, then raised in Flint, Michigan, Hekmati graduated from high school and joined the U.S. Marines, where he served four years, becoming a rifleman and also serving in Iraq.

His parents came to the United States in 1979 as the Islamic revolution spread across Iran.

Two years ago Hekmati surprised his parents by telling them he wanted to visit Iran for the first time, to meet relatives he had never seen -- including his ailing grandmother -- and find his roots.

"We know there is a risk involved," Behnaz Hekmati said. "We were always cautioning. And me, as a mother, because I know, I grew up in that country, I always cautioned about, you know, if something happened. But my kids, they said, 'Mom, my friend, they went, they came back, you know. And nothing's gonna happen.' And they never believe me, you know ... that it's very dangerous."

In August 2011, Amir Hekmati called his mother from Iran to say he was having the time of his life and he would be coming home soon. He told them he would leave two days after a final farewell party his Iranian relatives were having on August 29.

That party came and went; Hekmati never showed up.

For three months, no one in his family knew anything about Hekmati's whereabouts. Then one day in December 2011, Iranian state television aired Hekmati's purported confession he was a CIA spy, and announced that he was imprisoned.

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The suspect was "tasked with carrying out a complex intelligence operation and infiltrating the Iranian intelligence apparatus," Iran's Press TV reported at the time.

The family described being in total shock.

"That day we saw his face. And he was confessing ... he's a CIA spy, and I said, 'Wow,' " his mother said.

Behnaz Hekmati has said all along that her son's confession was fabricated and forced by his Iranian captors, a position the U.S. State Department supports.

"They had three months to make this story," his mother said. "They knew from beginning this is a good catch, you know. ... He's a Marine."

She said she believes that's why the family was not initially allowed to talk to her son.

"That's why they didn't want us to talk to him. Because he's going to tell us the truth, what happened," Behnaz Hekmati said. "And they just come up with this story. And an attorney told us same thing. He said, 'He didn't do anything.' "

Asked why it happened to his son, Ali Hekmati offered some thought.

"Naturally, we have some speculations that someone got jealous of him and didn't like the idea that he lives in America, and they are living over there in Iran," his father said. "(That person) probably came up with some lies about him, called him a CIA spy, (because) that was his original charge."

The initial charge and detention has stretched to a two-year ordeal. Weeks after his on-air confession broadcast on Iranian television,Amir Hekmati was tried in an Iranian court and sentenced to death. Months later, Iran's Supreme Court overturned his death sentenceand ordered a retrial. During his imprisonment, Hekmati spent 16 months in solitary confinement and went on a monthlong hunger strike.

The Hekmati family has tried to bring public attention to Amir's plight, hoping to secure his release. Letter after letter, plea after plea, Amir's sister Sarah has struggled to get political support to intervene.

Now that Iran has elected a more moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, in place of firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the family may have a better chance for his release.

"We just hope that we are reaching the ears -- especially now with this new transition in government in Iran -- the ears of the right people," Sarah Hekmati said.

The State Department has said Amir Hekmati's imprisonment follows a pattern by the Iranian regime, which it says "has a history of falsely accusing people of being spies, of eliciting forced confessions, and of holding innocent foreigners for political reason."

Hekmati is the latest in a series of Americans -- most of them Iranian-Americans -- to face arrest in the country in recent years:

• In 2007, Iran arrested several Iranian-Americans -- including Kian Tajbakhsh, Ali Shakeri and Haleh Esfandiari, who were all later released. (That same year retired FBI agent Robert Levinson went missing after last being seen on Iran's Kish Island. Despite photos from his captors, his whereabouts are still unknown.)

• In May 2008, retired Iranian-American businessman Reza Taghavi was arrested on suspicion of supporting an anti-regime group. He was released more than two years later.

• In 2009, three U.S. hikers, also accused of spying, were arrested and ultimately released.

• Tajbakhsh was re-arrested in July 2009 amid post-election protests and a massive government crackdown. In March 2010, he was allowed a temporary release that was later extended, according to the website The Iranian-American scholar is not allowed to leave the country, the website says.

• Journalist Roxana Saberi was arrested in January 2009 and convicted of espionage in a one-day trial that was closed to the public. She was freed in May that year.

• Literary translator Mohammad Soleimani Nia was detained in January 2012

• Christian pastor Saeed Abedini was reportedly detained in September 2012

Last week, Iran released at least a dozen other political prisoners,including one prominent human rights lawyer. Then, on Monday, the government released dozens more prisoners.

"My wishful thinking was praying and hoping that Amir's name was among that list of people that were released," his sister Sarah said. "It wasn't. But we're not going to give up."

Behnaz Hekmati made a tearful plea to Iran's new president, in English and Farsi, parent to parent, she says, to let her son come home.

"It's more than two years," she said, "Just let Amir come home. ... Amir didn't do any crime, he didn't do anything. Just let him to come home and make his family happy again."