Family pleads for release of former Marine imprisoned in Iran
Amir Hekmati
March 8th, 2013
06:34 PM ET

Family pleads for release of former Marine imprisoned in Iran

By Elise Labott

A year ago this week, an Iranian court threw out the death penalty conviction of a former U.S. Marine accused of spying and ordered a retrial.

After the death sentence was overturned, his family in Michigan held out hope Amir Hekmati would be released.

Instead, he has spent the past year in solitary confinement at Iran's notorious Evin Prison.

Hekmati was detained by Iranian authorities in August 2011 during a two-week visit to see his grandmother. Iranian authorities accused him spying on behalf of the CIA, a charge the family and the Obama administration deny.

Born in Arizona and raised in Nebraska before settling in Flint, Michigan, with his family, Hekmati joined the Marines out of high school. He finished his service four years later as a decorated combat veteran for tours in Iraq.

Afterward, he worked as a contractor as an Arabic translator and helped to train troops with cultural sensitivity.

Ramy Kurdi, who is married to Hekmati's eldest sister, said in an interview that his brother-in-law was honest with the Iranian Interest Section in Washington about his service when he applied for a visa.

"He told his mom, 'I have nothing to hide.' And after he disclosed this to the Iranians, they told him he would be welcomed in Iran and would have no problem," Kurdi said.

His family followed instructions by the Iranian government to remain silent about his arrest and suggested his release could come in a few months.

Three months later, in December, Hekmati appeared on Iranian state television maintaining he was sent to Iran by the CIA, a performance Kurdi said was a forced confession made under duress.

Although Hekmati's death sentence, imposed after a closed-door trial, was overturned and set for retrial, there have been no new legal proceedings and the government has not been communicating with the family.

"To have the death sentence overturned is a great victory, but for him to continue to be punished for something when the court said there is not enough evidence is so painful for us to deal with as a family," Kurdi said.

In January 2012, the Iranian government permitted Hekmati's mother to visit him in prison, but kept her from her son during two subsequent visits. Repeated requests by the family for his court-appointed lawyer to visit him have been denied.

Evin Prison is where American hikers Sharah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were imprisoned on charges of spying after crossing the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009 before ultimately being released. Bauer and Fattal were released two days after Hekmati's arrest.

Recently, Hekmati was moved out of solitary confinement to the general prison population, after a month-long hunger strike which left him unconscious and needing medical treatment. An uncle who lives in Iran was able to visit him in prison last month.

His family is concerned about Hekmati's heath, but is also in a race against the clock to get him home with his father, a biology professor who is battling terminal cancer. Hekmati does not know about his father's illness.

"We have no idea how much longer his father has," Kurdi said. "We just hope how ever long he has he gets to enjoy it with his whole family, with Amir home."

The family is hoping Hekmati can be released as a humanitarian gesture for the Persian New Year on March 20.

"Our family is not political," Kurdi said. We are Americans. Amir is an American citizen. We are not trying to involve ourselves in the politics between Iran and the U.S."

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