Iran Offers U.S. Swap on Detainees

April 24, 2019
Updated

On April 24, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif publicly offered to exchange detainees with the United States. “We informed the government of the United States six months ago that we are ready,” he said at the Asia Society in New York. “Not a response yet. If they tell you anything else, they're lying.” Zarif alleged that Iranians have been detained in the United States, Europe and Australia for violating sanctions, some on extradition warrants. Zarif played a key role in arranging an exchange of American and Iranian detainees that coincided with the implementation of the nuclear deal in 2016.

 

Iran has long detained foreigners and dual nationals, often on vague charges related to espionage or national security. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards arrested at least 30 dual nationals between 2015 and 2017, 19 of whom had citizenship in European countries, according to a Reuters investigation. Several Americans have also been imprisoned, gone missing or been released on bail in Iran but still face charges.

Western governments are limited in their ability to help their citizens in Iran because the Islamic Republic, in practice, does not recognize dual citizenship. Dual U.S.-Iranian citizens are in a particularly difficult situation. The Swiss government serves as a protecting power for U.S. interests in Iran through its embassy. But the Iranian government will not allow the Swiss to provide protective services for U.S. citizens who are also Iranian nationals.

Hardliners dominate Iran’s judiciary, intelligence agencies and security services. President Hassan Rouhani has had limited impact on human rights issues since taking office.

The Trump Administration has prioritized bringing American detainees home. “President Trump is prepared to impose new and serious consequences on Iran unless all unjustly imprisoned American citizens are released and returned,” the White House said in July 2017. On April 2, 2019, Secretary of State Pompeo hosted families of Americans held captive abroad. He reassured them that all parts of the U.S. government are doing their best to free their loved ones.

In response to Zarif’s comments, the State Department urged a humanitarian solution. “The Iranian regime can demonstrate its seriousness regarding consular issues, including Iranians who have been indicted or convicted of criminal violations of US sanctions laws, by releasing innocent U.S. persons immediately,” the State Department said in a statement to The New York Times

Zarif’s remarks on a potential detainee exchange are below, followed by profiles of U.S. citizens and residents held in Iran.

 

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

Our intelligence and our courts believe that the number of prisoners that they have imprisoned on espionage charges are responsible. I have no way of knowing. I have no way of saying that they're right. I have no way of saying that they're wrong. Not my job. And this not just trying to evade responsibility. It's not my job. I have enough headache trying to avoid a war and trying to help our people fight hunger that the United States wants to bring upon them. 

But I can involve myself on these issues as a foreign minister, other than on humanitarian grounds which have always been involved, and people know that. When there is a possibility of an exchange, because we have a separate judiciary. And the judiciary says that they are, they have committed offenses -- espionage, whatever. I may not agree with that, but that's not my job. My job is to try to arrange for a deal, an exchange. I did it once. We reached an agreement, and believe me, there are Iranians in prison, in the United States, on sanctions violation charges. In Europe, there is an Iranian with a heart condition in a European jail waiting for extradition to the United States whose charge is to try to buy spare parts for airplanes, not fighter jets, civilian airplanes so that people could fly safely. That's his charge. He's lingering in prison in Germany on an extradition request. 

We have an Iranian lady in Australia who gave birth to a child in prison, not even on bail, inside the prison, under an extradition request by the United States because she was responsible as a translator in a whatever, a purchase operation of some transmission equivalent for Iranian broadcasting. That's her charge. She's been lingering in an Australian jail for the past three years. 

We hear about Nazanin Zaghari and her child, and I feel sorry for them. And I have done my best to help, but nobody talks about this lady in Australia who gave birth to a child in prison, whose child is growing up outside prison -- with his mother in prison. 

So, what can I do as a foreign minister? And I put this offer on the table publicly now. Exchange them. All these people that are in prison inside the United States, on extradition requests from the United States, we believe their charges are phony. The United States believes the charges against these people in Iran are phony. Why? Let's not discuss that. Let's have an exchange. I'm ready to do it. And I have authority to do it. We informed the government of the United States six months ago that we are ready. Not a response yet. If they tell you anything else, they're lying. 

—April 24, 2019, at the Asia Society 

 

On CBS “Face the Nation”

MARGARET BRENNAN: Minister Zarif, you publicly floated this idea of a prisoner exchange with the U.S. What would that look like? 

FOREIGN MINISTER JAVAD ZARIF: Well, we've done it before. We had a possibility of getting the release of some Iranians who were in U.S. jails or were under probation in the United States. We removed them from that circumstances and- and then some U.S.-Iranians who were in jail in Iran were released. I think we can do it again. We- the administration- the previous administration was trying to engage in that. The new administration initially showed interest. We made an offer in September that we are ready, and we are ready.  

MARGARET BRENNAN: You made an offer to the Trump administration in September to begin negotiating-- 

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: We responded- we responded to the offer that they had actually made to engage and we are waiting for a reply. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Who are you asking to be released from US prisons? 

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Well there are a number of Iranians who are in U.S. jails for sanctions violations. There are a number of Iranians who are in jail all over the world. On pressure, on pressure-- 

MARGARET BRENNAN: But who would you want for the Americans? 

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: These are- are on pressure from the United States  either on extradition request or on sort of behind the scenes pressure and arm twisting. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: So have you presented the U.S. with a list? 

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: They know. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: They know? 

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: They know this is not- this is nothing new. This is a continuation of the previous exchange.  

MARGARET BRENNAN: Why not, as a- a show of your seriousness here, release some of the at least five Americans who are currently imprisoned in Iran? 

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: We're not supposed to show seriousness because we have shown our seriousness by implementing the nuclear deal. It's the United States that needs to prove that it's serious. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Are you linking the two? 

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: No, we're not linking the two, it's just the experience. We've shown that when we say something, we abide by it. The United States has shown that when we say- it- they say something they will- they will then decide whether they want to abide by it or not. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: So- but what about someone like Baquer Namazi? He's in his 80s--  

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: He's not in jail. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: --his health is failing-- 

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: He's not in jail. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: --he is still- he still has to report to Evin Prison. He is still restricted from getting medical care outside of Iran. Why not allow him to leave to get that care? 

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Well, you see, I am responsible for foreign policy. I'm not responsible for interfering in court's decisions. I can intervene when there is an exchange, an offer of exchange. I cannot intervene as foreign minister. I can intervene as a private individual on humanitarian basis, and I do, I do. But as foreign minister, I do not have a standing in any Iranian court unless I can engage in an exchange with Iranians who are wrongfully, in our view,  detained either inside the United States or elsewhere. We have people, we have- we have ladies who were pregnant when they were detained who gave birth in prison, who were not even given a- released on bail to deliver outside prison. We have people with heart conditions. We have people with terminal cancer in there.  

MARGARET BRENNAN: But Baquer Namazi's health is failing-- 

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: He-- MARGARET BRENNAN: --if he dies in Iranian custody in Iran, isn't that really damaging to all parts of policy? 

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Well, you see, that's not- that's not a decision that I can make. I make- I-I- I have-- 

MARGARET BRENNAN: It's not in your power to let him leave?  

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Yeah, I don't have a standing. I will find a standing when there is an exchange. That is why I- it is in my- in the purview of my responsibility to offer that possibility. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you would offer to swap the at least five Americans there for five Iranians? 

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: No, no, no. I mean it's all for us. We have to- we have to see. I mean human beings, we- we- we don't count them. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Because some would say, you know, skeptics would look at that and say this is a PR ploy, that you're just saying this. 

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: No, it's not a PR ploy. We've done it before. Was this a PR ploy when we did it before?  

MARGARET BRENNAN: In parallel with the nuclear deal, the nuclear negotiations. 

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: No, no, no. It had nothing to do with the nuclear deal. It- I mean we did it because we were sitting together. We did a number of deeds, this was one of them, but it was just because we were willing to discuss this issue. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: And you're offering to discuss this issue right now with who, the secretary of state? 

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: No, we- the- the US has a person responsible for this. We have a person responsible for this. If they are of the same rank they can- they can meet if they're not of the same rank, we will appoint somebody of the- of the rank of the person who's representing the United States. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: So the letter you received from Ambassador O'Brien who handles hostage issues--  

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: We didn't-- 

MARGARET BRENNAN: --you would allow him to sit and talk with your deputy? 

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: No, we won't allow somebody who handles hostage issue to- to deal with them because they're not hostages, they're prisoners. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: So who is actually- who are you willing to talk to about this? 

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: We're willing to talk to anybody who's willing to respect Iran and deal with this issue. We- we don't have anything against Ambassador O'Brien, but we will not deal with the hostage negotiator unless they want us to appoint somebody as our hostage negotiator so that they discuss about Iranian hostages in U.S. jail. You see the United States cannot put itself in a different moral position. It's holding Iranians who are sick, who have done no crime in jail in Germany, in Australia, in--  

MARGARET BRENNAN: But that is what the lawyers for Siamak Namazi, someone you knew,  Baquer Namazi, a- a Princeton scholar, Xiyue Wang, would all say these are people who haven't committed crimes-- 

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Yeah. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: --who are Americans behind bars in Iran. 

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: Yeah, that- that's what I'm saying. People who are in- lingering in jails all over the world and in the U.S.A., their lawyers would say that they have not committed any crime that they're innocent. One of them was involved, at least was accused of, and they haven't been tried, they're just waiting for extradition. They're just there because of U.S. pressure. So, these are cases where we believe our prisoners are in prison on bogus charges. The United States believes that they are in prison in Iran on bogus charges. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: So anyone who is in a--  

FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF: So let's not- let's not debate that because that's not my responsibility. I have enough responsibility on my shoulders to prevent a war, to try to circumvent U.S. attempts to prevent Iran from engaging in what is legally ours, and that is normal economic relations. So, I do this as a part of my job, as foreign minister to exchange people without attribution of guilt. Simply to make it possible for people to go back home. 

 

US flagU.S. Citizens and Residents Detained in Iran

 

Michael White

U.S. Navy veteran Michael White, 46, from Imperial Beach, California was arrested on unspecified charges in late July 2018 while visiting his girlfriend in Iran. Michael arrived in Iran on July 9, 2018 and never made it onto his return flight, according to his mother, Joanne White. She last spoke with her on July 13 and filed a missing-person report when Michael did not return on his scheduled flight.

In December 2018, the State Department informed Joanne White that Michael was being held in an Iranian prison and that U.S. officials were seeking access to him through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which has provided consular services for Americans since 1980. 

 

The State Department, in an email response to The New York Times, acknowledged their awareness of White’s detention and stated that they “have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens abroad.” The State Department was unable to provide any additional information to the public due to privacy considerations. 

IranWire, a website run by Iranian journalists outside of Iran, first published information about White’s arrest on January 7. In an interview, Irvad Farhadi, a former Iranian prisoner turned cyber activist, claimed to have met Michael White in Vakilabad Prison in the city of Mashhad in October. Farhadi alleged that White was “suffering psychologically” and being held “alongside dangerous criminals.” 

On January 9, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi confirmed White had been arrested “some time ago” in the Iranian city of Mashhad. But he dismissed claims that White was being held in “suboptimal conditions.” Ghassemi said that Iran had notified the United States, via the Swiss, about White in the days immediately following his arrest. Iran will “release the results of the investigations in due time,” he added. 

In an interview with CBS News, Joanne White explained that her son was in Iran visiting his girlfriend of “four or five years” whom he had met online, and that he had visited her “three or four times” in the past “without any issues.” In a January statement, family spokesperson Jonathan Franks further explained that “Michael traveled to Iran with a valid Iranian visa to visit a woman with whom he had fallen in love - his visits were solely for that purpose.” Franks stated that Michael spent much of his time in the Navy as a cook, left the Military about a decade ago, and recently worked as a commercial janitor. Franks asserted that Michael “is not now, nor has he ever been, a spy” and that White has “no part in the ongoing geopolitical dispute between the United States and Iran.” The family claims that Michael has been arbitrarily detained by Iranian authorities, rejecting any suspicion that he may have engaged in espionage. On February 24, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Panahiazar said that there were no “security or espionage issues on the table.”

Michael’s mother expressed grave concern for her son’s safety and physical well-being as a prisoner in Iran considering Michael’s long history of medical ailments including a cancerous neck tumor and acute asthma. Ms. White stated that prior to Michael’s last visit to Iran, he had undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatment for a neck tumor. 

On February 6, 2019, Swiss diplomats visited Mr. White at Vakilabad. Michael’s mother was updated on his conditions. “Over the past few weeks, I’ve learned that Mike was badly beaten when he was arrested and that he has been taken to court at least twice for proceedings in Farsi that he couldn’t understand. My son is not well. His health is deteriorating, and I want him back so I can get him the care he badly needs”, she said in a statement. White was not able to communicate directly with his family. The spokesman for Iran’s U.N. mission, Alireza Miryousefi, disputed those claims. He said Michael received all necessary medicine, was being “treated humanely” and was “in the best possible conditions.”

On March 11, Mashhad’s prosecutor said White had been sentenced, but he did not elaborate on the charges. An attorney for the family, Mark Zaid, later said that he was sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly insulting the supreme leader and 10 years for posting a private photograph on social media. Zaid said that he believed the sentences would run concurrently. 

 

Xiyue Wang

Princeton University graduate student Xiyue Wang was arrested on August 8, 2016 while conducting research in Iran on the administrative and cultural history of the late Qajar dynasty for his doctoral dissertation. Wang’s family and Princeton University had not previously released information about his arrest in the hope that he would be released.

 

Wang was born in China and is a naturalized American citizen. He studied in China as a child and for his first year of college. According to The Washington Post, he dropped out after securing a chance to study India before heading to the University of Washington in 2003. He studied Russian and Eurasia studies at Harvard University before working as a Princeton in Asia fellow at the law firm Orrick in Hong Kong in 2008. Wang also worked as a translator for the International Committee of Red Cross in Afghanistan. In 2013, he began his doctoral work at Princeton University.

On July 17, 2017, Wang was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of spying, according to Iran’s judiciary spokesman, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehi, and Iranian media. A U.S. citizen “was gathering intelligence and was directly guided by the U.S.,” Ejehi announced at a weekly press briefing on July 16. He noted the sentence could be appealed, but did not elaborate or reveal the individual’s name.

Mizan Online News Agency, however, identified Wang. In a report citing an anonymous source, Mizan alleged that Wang had been using his academic research as a cover and was working on a 4,500-page digital archive for “the world’s biggest anti-Iran spying organization.” The article said he infiltrated Iran’s national archive and gathered secret and top-secret intelligence for the U.S. State Department, the Harvard Kennedy School and the British Institute of Persian Studies.

State Department officials told journalists that they were aware of the reports about the dual national but that they would not detail efforts on this case or others for privacy reasons. “The Iranian regime continues to detain U.S. citizens and other foreigners on fabricated national-security-related changes," an official said.

Princeton University also issued a statement saying they were “very distressed by the charges brought against him in connection with his scholarly activities, and by his subsequent conviction and sentence.” Princeton has reportedly been working with Wang’s family, the U.S. government and lawyers to help secure his release.

In August 2017, Iranian authorities denied Wang’s appeal. “I am devastated that my husband’s appeal has been denied, and that he continues to be unjustly imprisoned in Iran on groundless accusations of espionage and collaboration with a hostile government against the Iranian state,” his wife, Hua Qu, said in a statement.

In a November 2017 interview with NBC, Qu stated her husband had attempted suicide and that his condition was “very desperate.” She also called on the Trump administration to work with the Iranian government to bring about his release.

On August 23, 2018,  the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a statement calling on Iran to immediately release Wang. It said that Iran had “no legal basis for the arrest and detention” of Wang and that he had been wrongly accused of espionage. The Working Group obtained a response to the petition from the government of Iran. The Iranian response, however, failed to explain how Wang had cooperated with a foreign state against Iran’s government or “how Mr. Wang’s trial on espionage charges posed a national security threat so serious that it warranted a closed hearing.”

 

Siamak Namazi

Dubai-based businessman Siamak Namazi was reportedly arrested around Oct. 15, 2015. The detention of Crescent Petroleum’s head of strategic planning has not been officially confirmed, nor have any details regarding any charges brought against him. He was arrested just days before the Oct. 18, 2015 Adoption Day of the Iran nuclear deal. 

Namazi

Namazi is the son of a former governor of the oil-rich province of Khuzestan in western Iran, according to The Washington Post. His family came to the United States in 1983 when he was a boy. He became a U.S. citizen in 1993. After graduating from college, Namazi returned to Iran for military service, which is compulsory there. From 1994 to 1996, he worked as a duty officer with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning in Tehran.

In 1998, Namazi founded Future Alliance International, a Washington D.C.-based consulting company focused on the risk of doing business in Iran. He came to see Iranian-Americans as a potential asset to his home country. “The new generation must be made to feel that no matter how much time elapses they will be welcomed and treated with respect in the land of their parents,” he wrote in 1998 for The Iranian. He suggested that Iran’s recognition of dual citizenship would be a good first step. “Iranian-Americans are a formidable force in helping mend the bridge between Iran and the United States,” he stated in a 1999 co-authored paper.

Namazi later worked as Managing Director at a family consulting firm founded in Tehran that later moved to Dubai, the Atieh Group. In 2005, he was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He also did a stint at the National Endowment for Democracy in 2006. He then worked for a few different energy consulting groups in Dubai. In 2013, Namazi warned that sanctions unintentionally created shortages of life-saving medical supplies and drugs in Iran. He was General Manager of Access Consulting Group, a Dubai-based consultancy focused on energy, before moving on to his most recent position at Crescent Petroleum. Namazi holds degrees from the London Business School and from Rutgers and Tufts Universities.

On July 11, 2016, Tehran’s prosecutor announced that Namazi had been indicted but did not specify the charges. On October 17, the Mizan news agency, the judiciary news service, posted a video that appeared to show Namazi in the hours immediately following his arrest. The short clip was an anti-American montage that showed images of a captured American surveillance drone, Jason Rezaian (a dual-national journalist who was accused of spying for the United States), U.S. sailors kneeling before being detained by Iranian forces and more. 

On October 18, 2016, after being tried without access to a lawyer, Namazi was sentenced to 10 years in prison for collaborating with a foreign government. Five other defendants were also convicted and given similar sentences, including Siamak Namazi’s father Baquer. Namazi and his father are being held in Evin Prison by the IRGC.

Siamak Namazi’s brother Babak spoke out against the sentences, calling them unjust. “My father has been handed practically a death sentence,” Babak wrote. “Siamak’s only crime has been to speak out against the negative effects of sanctions.” Babak was referring to an Op-Ed essay Namazi wrote for The New York Times in 2013.

In April 2017, Namazi’s lawyer, Jared Genser, called on President Trump to secure the release of Namazi and his father. “If not resolved quickly, the Namazi cases could have an outsized impact on the trajectory of Iran-US relations because both men are in rapidly declining health,” Genser stated. “In our view, something happening to the Namazis would be devastating not just to one side, but to both sides.” “For either or both of the Namazi to die on President Trump’s watch would be a public and catastrophic failure of his negotiating skills.”

Siamak Namazi’s health has declined since his arrest following prolonged periods of interrogation and a hunger strike in 2016. In August 2017, a Tehran appeals court upheld the convictions of both Siamak and his father, Baquer. “The Namazis are innocent of the charges on which they were convicted and they are prisoners of conscience, detained in Iran because they are American citizens,” international counsel to the family, Jared Genser, said in a statement.

In September 2017, a U.N. panel of international legal experts reportedly concluded that the imprisonment of the Namazis was illegal and that they should be freed.

On August 26, 2018 the Tehran Appeals Court denied the appeals of Siamak and Baquer Namazi, upholding their convictions of collaborating with the U.S. government. The Namazis U.S.-based lawyer Jared Genser condemned the move as a “cruel and unjust decision” of the court. 

 

Baquer Namazi

Siamak Namazi’s then 80-year-old father, Baquer, was reportedly arrested on Feb. 22, 2016. A former provincial governor and UNICEF representative who worked in several countries such as Kenya, Somalia and Egypt with the majority of his work focused on aid toward women and children affected by war. Baquer Namazi most recently ran Hamyaran, an umbrella organization of a number of different Iranian NGOs.

Namazi’s arrest occurred soon after a prisoner swap between the United States and Iran that coincided with the implementation of the nuclear deal. He and his son have been denied access to their family’s lawyer. The elder Namazi has a serious heart condition, as well as a host of other medical conditions that require medical attention, according to his wife.

In February 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate panel hearing that he was engaged on the issue of Namazi’s detention but could not comment due to privacy considerations.

In April 2016, judiciary spokesman Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi suggested both Namazis could be swapped for Ahmad Sheikhzadeh— an Iranian consultant to the United Nations held in the United States on suspicion of tax and money laundering charges for helping violate sanctions. Ejehi, however, emphasized that he just “heard words from here and there though nothing has been officially conveyed to the judiciary.”

Namazi’s other son, Babak has spoken quite frequently about his father and brother’s imprisonment. In November 2016, in an interview with Steven Inskeep, host of NPR’s Morning Edition, Babak discussed the impact of the ordeal on him and his family.

“As a family, we're devastated. It's just being bombarded for the past year with one horrible event after another. I have half my family ripped away from me. I'm wondering if I will see my father again. It's very horrible to say this, but he has been in essence handed a life sentence. A 10-year sentence for an 80-year-old man is a life sentence. But I have to do all I can to save my father's life and my brother's.”

Babak has since urged President Trump to take “personal responsibility” for negotiating his father and brother’s release. Baquer Namazi and his son Samiak currently remain jailed in Evin Prison.

In June 2017, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres appealed to President Rouhani in a private letter to release Baquer on humanitarian grounds.

In August 2017, a Tehran appeals court upheld the convictions of both Namazis. Baquer’s health has deteriorated rapidly. “He is 81-years-old, previously had a triple bypass surgery, has lost 30 pounds in prison and suffers from shortness of breath, dizziness, bouts of confusion, and recently lost his hearing in one ear,” international counsel to the family, Jared Genser, said in a statement.

On Sept. 5, 2017, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled that Siamak and Baquer Namazi were not granted a fair trial under internationally recognized law and called for their immediate release.

On Sept. 19, 2017, Baquer underwent surgery to receive a pacemaker. One week prior, IRGC guards had refused to take him to the hospital despite being advised by cardiologists, prompting pleas from his family. Three days later, U.N. Secretary General Guterres urged President Rouhani to release Namazi on humanitarian grounds during a meeting in New York.

On Jan. 15, 2018, Baquer was rushed to the hospital after a severe drop in blood pressure and irregular heartbreak. He was granted a four-day medical leave beginning on January 28 and. He was told to report to the government’s medical examiner on February 4, and that his leave would be extended until then. The examiner recommended a three-month leave on medical grounds. But on February 6, Namazi received a call ordering him to return to Evin Prison.

On Feb. 7, 2018, the White House issued a statement calling for the immediate release of Namazi and all other U.S. citizens detained in Iran.

On August 26, 2018 the Tehran Appeals Court denied the appeals of Siamak and Baquer Namazi, upholding their convictions of collaborating with the U.S. government. The Namazis U.S.-based lawyer Jared Genser condemned the move as a “cruel and unjust decision” of the court. 

 

Karan Vafadari and Afarin Niasari

Husband and wife Karan Vafadari and Afarin Niasari were arrested by the IRGC intelligence organization in July 2016 and then held at Evin Prison. Details about their case were only published in December 2016. The couple reportedly manages an art gallery in Tehran. Niasari, a permanent U.S. resident, was apprehended by IRGC agents at Imam Khomeini airport when she attempted to visit family abroad, according to Vafadari’s sister. Soon after, Niasari was forced to call her husband and ask him to come to the airport, where he too was apprehended. The next day, they were brought back to their home handcuffed, while IRGC agents destroyed works of art hanging on their walls.

No formal charges were immediately brought against Vafadari and Niasari, however prosecutors alluded to the pair hosting mix gendered parties for foreign diplomats and Iranians where alcohol was consumed. Vafadari, however, is Zoroastrian, and therefore not subject himself to the ban on Muslim consumption of alcohol. Iran permits recognized minorities ― Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians ― to drink alcohol in the privacy of their homes.

Vafadari and Niasari run an art gallery in Tehran, and Niasari also works as an architect. Vafadari, a dual national, was educated in the United States and he has three children that live in New York City. Since being detained, Vafadari has been able contact family members who have visited him a number of times.

In August 2016, Jafari Dowlat-Abadi, Tehran’s Prosecutor General described the Vafadari and Niasari home as “a center of immorality and prostitution.” The original charges were initially dropped due to lack of evidence, but reinstated at a hearing in March 2017, during which the pair was denied legal counsel.

New charges were brought against Vafadari and Niasari in a pre-trial hearing on March 8, 2017. The new charges included attempting to overthrow the Islamic Republic and recruiting spies through foreign embassies. The trial was slated to begin on April 17 but has yet to be held.

In a letter to the judge dated July 24, Vafadari said that the charges against him and his wife were completely false. “It is my belief that judiciary officials arrested us for political and financial reasons, without sufficient investigation or evidence,” he wrote.

In a Jan. 21, 2018 letter, Vafadari stated he had been issued a 27-year prison sentence while his wife Niasari had received 16 years. Vafadari’s sentence included 124 lashes, confiscation of all assets, and a fine, he wrote. He cited charges related to espionage, alcohol consumption, receiving gifts of alcohol, and hosting parties. Vafadari attributed his treatment and sentence to being Zoroastrian and a dual national, with the asset seizure being justified by the court under an unprecedented use of 1928 Civil Code Article 989.

On July 21, 2018, Vafadari and Niasari were released from prison on bail after having their initial sentences reduced earlier in 2018. They were awaiting a final verdict on their appeal request as of late July.

 

Nizar Zakka

Nizar Zakka, Lebanese national and permanent U.S. resident, was reportedly detained on his way to the airport on Sept. 18, 2015. He is an information and communications technology expert and secretary general of the information and communications technology organization IJMA3. He holds both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in computer science from the University of Texas at Austin. Zakka has lead development projects for corporations such as Cisco and Microsoft, as well has doing contract work for the U.S. State Department.

He was reportedly invited by the Iranian government to Tehran for a business conference focusing on entrepreneurship and has since been accused of espionage for the United States. While accused of having deep ties with the US intelligence and military apparatuses by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, his family has maintained that no such ties exist.

Zakka has been denied access to legal representation or contact with his family. On July 11, 2016, Tehran’s prosecutor announced that he had been indicted but did not specify the charges. On Sept. 20, 2016, Zakka’s lawyer announced that he had been sentenced to 10 years in prison and $4.2 million fine for collaborating against the state. On December 8, 2016, he began a hunger strike. Zakka’s American lawyer, Jason Poblete, said that he was punished for being on hunger strike and “moved to a room with 60 other men and forced to sleep on the floor side by side with common criminals,” according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran

Nizar Zakka’s family met with Lebanese officials in late May 2017 to ask for assistance in arranging his release. Lebanese Justice Minister Salim Jreisati promised to find a resolution as soon as possible, according to a statement issued by Zakka’s lawyer.

On June 27, 2017, Nizar began his fifth hunger strike since being imprisoned in Evin Prison. Zakka issued the following statement on June 29, 2017:

“I will not sign a forced confession or accept anything less than my freedom and innocence. I would rather die with my head [held] high. I plead with those in a position to help, including the United Nations Secretary General and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, for my release, and the release of fellow innocent Americans and others being held in Iran.”

After Zakka started his most recent hunger strike, he reported that Evin Prison guards “increased the physical and psychological pressures on him.”

In July 2017, an audio recording was released by Zakka’s family to the Washington Free Beacon. In the recording, Zakka called for international assistance in his release, defended his innocence and vowed to continue his hunger strike "until my death or freedom." Zakka then asked to meet with a name that has been omitted from the recording to provide the gentleman with his will. He ends by expressing his desire to meet with the International Red Cross Committee before his “situation degrades significantly.” He eventually ended his strike after 33 days.

Following the release of the recording, Zakka’s lawyer Jason Poblete issued a statement on behalf of his family, which stated: “The Zakka family asks for continued prayers and support, as well as the unconditional humanitarian release of Nizar.”

On July 3, 2017, Iran confirmed that an appeals court upheld the sentences against Zakka and three American citizens. Zakka had been sentenced to 10 years in prison and a $4.2 million fine.

Zakka's U.S.-based lawyer told the Center for Human Rights in Iran that Evin Prison's director was refusing to allow outside medical treatment for Zakka for an illness that developed sine his imprisonment. 

In August 2018, Lebanon’s head of General Security Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim reportedly traveled to Tehran and met with Nizar Zakka. Ibrahim’s visit marked an attempt to pave the way for Zakka’s release and return to Lebanon. 

On January 2, 2019, Zakka’s family claimed in a statement that Iranian authorities had transferred Nizar out of his cell in Evin Prison to a private Revolutionary Guard prison for questioning. The family said they were unable to speak with Zakka for nearly three weeks from the time it was revealed that he had been moved.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri demanded Zakka’s release in a letter to President Rouhani on January 15, 2019. Hariri delivered the letter to Rouhani in his meeting with Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon Muhammad-Jalal Firouznia. No reply was publicized. 

 

Robert Levinson

Former FBI agent Robert Levinson went missing on March 9, 2007, during a visit to Kish Island. Initial reports indicated that he was researching a cigarette smuggling case as a private investigator. “He's a private citizen involved in private business in Iran,” the State Department said in 2007. Iran has denied knowing the status or location of Levinson, who will turn 70 in 2018. 

Levinson’s family first received evidence that he was alive in November 2010. In a 54-second video, Levinson asked for a U.S. government response to his captors' demands, which have not been publicized. In March 2011, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that new information indicated that Levinson was being held in Southwest Asia, without specifying any particular countries. His unidentified captors sent a set of photographs to his family the following month. Levinson, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, held a sign bearing a different message in each photo. “This is the result of 30 years serving for USA,” one read. In December 2011, Levinson’s family released a statement he had taped a year earlier.

LevinsonIn 2013, the Associated Press reported that Levinson had been working on a private contract for U.S. intelligence. In late 2013, the family acknowledged that his visit to Kish Island was partly related to his contract work for the CIA. Levinson served in the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration for 28 years, where he focused on investigating organized crime in Russia. He retired from the FBI in 1998 and began working as a private investigator. He has seven children.

In January 2016, following a prisoner swap that coincided with implementation of the nuclear deal, Secretary of State John Kerry said Iran agreed to deepen coordination in finding Levinson. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest later clarified that the government had reason to believe that Levinson is no longer in Iran, and had thought so for several years.  

In March 2017, the White House issued a statement marking the 10-year anniversary of Levinson’s disappearance. “The Trump Administration remains unwavering in our commitment to locate Mr. Levinson and bring him home,” it said. Also in March, Levinson’s family filed a lawsuit against Iran in a federal court.  

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson promised to meet with the family of Robert Levinson during questions at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on June 14, 2017. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) asked for Tillerson’s commitment during the Committee’s review of the State Department’s budget for the next fiscal year.

On July 11, 2017, a bi-partisan delegation of lawmakers, led by Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) published a letter to President Trump, which calls upon the President to “re-engage” with Iran over Levinson. “Bob’s return is an urgent humanitarian issue,” the letter states. “It is critical that the United States maintain pressure on Iran to see that he is returned as soon as possible.” In March 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo marked the 12th anniversary of Levin’s capture. He called on Iran to honors its commitment to help locate and recover him. 

The location and fate of Robert Levinson remains unknown.

 

 

 Home page photo credit: Zarif by Barth / MSC [CC BY 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/de/deed.en)]

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