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
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.”
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 theFreeAmir.org 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.”