Flint family still fighting for son’s release from Iranian prison


May 20, 2013

By Elisha Anderson 

Detroit Free Press Staff

FLINT — Behnaz Hekmati remembers the call she got from her son saying he was planning to return to home from his trip to Iran.

Nearly two years later, the Flint mother is still waiting for his return.

Amir Hekmati, a 29-year-old U.S. veteran, has been locked up since August 2011, accused of being a CIA spy — a claim which his family and the U.S. government repeatedly have denied.

“This disaster changed our life,” his mother said.

His family said Hekmati went to Iran to visit his two grandmothers who live there and was taken by force during the third, and final, week of his visit. He appeared on video about four months later in Iranian custody, and since then, his family has been working to secure his release.

On Wednesday, his older sister, Sarah Hekmati, 32, returned from Washington, D.C. — her fourth visit there — after meeting with officials, including the ambassador of Switzerland to Iran, Livia Leu Agosti, who is representing U.S. interests in Iran.

Sarah Hekmati said she was told during the trip that Iranian authorities may revisit her brother’s case, which makes her optimistic.

“I feel hopeful,” she said. “On the U.S. end, we have members of the State Department, U.S. government officials and a lot of bipartisan support.”

Dealing with the ordeal

The situation has taken its toll — emotionally and financially — on the family.

“I really, really miss him,” Behnaz Hekmati told the Free Press from her home in Flint earlier this month. “I don’t know how long we can take this.”

She hasn’t seen her son in almost a year since her last trip to visit him in prison in Iran, but he is on her mind constantly.

Amir Hekmati’s framed picture sits on an end table next to the couch in the home where he grew up. It’s the same couch where Hekmati signed papers to join the U.S. Marines, his mother said.

“He said, ‘Mom, I’m going to go to see the whole world,’ ” she recalled. “Then suddenly … 9/11 happened.”

Her son, who served as a rifleman and informal interpreter, was deployed to Iraq for six months in 2004. Hekmati, who speaks Arabic and Farsi in addition to English, had a business translating for people when he got out of the military, his family said.

He had planned to study economics at the University of Michigan in January 2012. Instead of going to Ann Arbor, he has spent about 21 months behind bars, 16 of them in solitary confinement, his family said.

His conditions since have changed and in March, family members received letters from Hekmati for the first time.

He wrote that he loves and misses them, wants to come home to see them, and told his father, Ali Hekmati, who is on leave from his microbiology professor job at Mott Community College in Flint and undergoing chemotherapy for brain cancer, to take good care of his health.

Amir Hekmati was incarcerated at the time his father was diagnosed with cancer.His family allowed the news media into the hospital last September and word of his father’s illness made it back to Amir Hekmati through the families of other prisoners, his parents said.

“It’s been very hard for us for us,” Ali Hekmati said. “I miss him dearly.”

Working on his case

His family, who has maintained Hekmati was in Iran legally and did nothing wrong, has worked through Iranian government channels, written letters to Iran’s leaders, met with elected officials in the U.S. and hired an attorney in Iran.

Hekmati received a death sentence in January 2012, but two months later, Iran’s high court ordered a retrial.

“My son was not a spy,” his father said.

The State Department have called the charges “categorically false,” and previously said that Hekmati endured a “closed-door trial with little regard for fairness and transparency.”

State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said during a news media briefing last month that officials are “determined to secure his release and remain deeply concerned about his well-being in Iranian custody.” He said they’ve been working continuously to secure Hekmati’s release, but didn’t discuss specifics.

Dawud Walid, the executive director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Michigan Chapter in Southfield, said he told the Iranian government that he is willing to go to Iran and bring Hekmati home if they want to turn him over to his custody. He said he wants due process for Hekmati.

“All that I request from the Iranian government is that Amir is given a fair, transparent trial with legal council that he chooses for himself, so that he can face the charges presented against him,” he said. “If they can’t provide that, or if they don’t feel the need to do that, then we ask them to show mercy and let Mr. Hekmati go.”

His family, who said he was always there for them willing to help with anything, wants him released as soon as possible.

“We miss him,” Ali Hekmati said. “We need him. He needs us.”

The early years

Ali and Behnaz Hekmati came to the U.S. from Iran in 1979 and brought their children up with knowledge of parts of Iran, including the food, culture and people.

Amir Hekmati, who was born in Flagstaff, Ariz., and moved to Flint in 1991, had never been to Iran before and wanted to go see the country he heard so much about and be with family still there, his mother recalled, even though she worried about him going.

“Instead of holding him with a warm greeting, you put him in a jail,” she said. “It is not fair, he didn’t do anything.”

She has been to see him three times and said her son, who enjoys working out and likes playing soccer and hockey, didn’t have much muscle because of lack of exercise. He lost weight and was being kept in solitary confinement during her visits.

His prison conditions changed after a hunger strike. Hekmati passed out from hunger and was moved into a cell with others, family members said. A judge granted permission for his uncle in Iran to visit once a month, Hekmati is allowed to exercise one hour per day and he also has been permitted to write letters to family members.

“At one point in time … nobody heard from Amir for months and he was not allowed visitors,” Walid said.

It’s hard to know what to make of the changes because it’s hard to read the Iranian government, he said.

During her visit in D.C., Sarah Hekmati gave the Swiss ambassador to Iran books, letters and personal items to take back to Iran in hopes of getting them to her brother.

“I gave him some pictures my kids have drawn for him,” she said.

Meanwhile, his mother spells out her dreams for him: come home, go back to school, get married and have children.

“It will happen,” her husband assured her. “It will happen.

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