WASHINGTON -- Iran freed four Americans as part of a prisoner release deal with the U.S. on Saturday. The men had been imprisoned in the country on trumped up charges, or in some cases no charges at all. The identities of three of the Americans were already known: Washington Post Tehran correspondent Jason Rezaian, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini. The imprisonment of Nosratollah Khosrawi-Roodsari, the fourth man released Saturday, had not been previously reported.
These are Rezaian, Hekmati and Abedini's stories:
Jason Rezaian, Washington Post Tehran bureau chief
Rezaian was arrested and imprisoned after Iranian authorities raided his and his wife's home in Tehran on July 22, 2014. The 39-year-old California native was charged the following April with four crimes, including espionage, “propaganda against the establishment” and “collaborating with hostile governments” -- the latter charge likely a reference to the U.S. He went to trial behind closed doors in May 2015, and was convicted in October.
“To this day, we don’t know what he was sentenced to or what he was convicted of,” Ali Rezaian, Jason’s brother, told The Huffington Post.
Weeks before his arrest, Rezaian had lunch with travel journalist Anthony Bourdain, who was filming an episode of “Parts Unknown” in Iran, and described his love for the country.
(Rezaian pictured above with his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, and Anthony Bourdain. Salehi, also a reporter, was originally detained with Rezaian, but was later released on bail.)
In his writing, Rezaian, who has lived in Iran since 2008, often tried to explain misconceptions about Iranian politics and culture to an American readership. In 2013, shortly after Hassan Rouhani, a political moderate, became president, Rezaian wrote about the tension within Iran over chanting “Death to America.”
In 2014, Rezaian profiled Iran’s national baseball team, which despite a lack of funding, national recognition or even access to baseball bats due to international sanctions, is ranked 48th worldwide in a sport that is widely regarded as an American pastime.
After Islamic State fighters stormed Mosul and spread throughout Iraq and Syria, Rezaian explored the possibilities of tacit cooperation between Iran and the U.S., which had both deployed military force to fight the group.
Rezaian, who began covering Iran for the Washington Post in 2012, chronicled months of nuclear negotiations between Iran, the U.S. and five world powers. On July 18, 2014, he published the last story he would write before his arrest, reporting from Vienna that the six states had agreed to another extension of the talks. "Analysts agree that there is an unprecedented show of will from both sides to complete a deal," he wrote at the time.
When the talks finally led to a breakthrough agreement almost exactly one year later, Rezaian would learn about it from his jail cell.
Rezaian was on friendly terms with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who told NPR last year that Rezaian is a “fair reporter” and publicly expressed hope that he would be cleared of all charges. Zarif’s public display of compassion for Rezaian, contrasted with the government’s refusal to unilaterally release him, highlights the deep rift between the moderates in the country and the hardliners who are fearful of thawing relations between the U.S. and Iran.
On Christmas Day, Iranian officials granted Rezaian’s mother and his wife an unusually long visit of four hours. “We welcome this act of basic humanity, and we encourage his jailers in Iran to follow up by doing all that justice and decency require: Release Jason from prison and allow him a return to life as a free man who can spend time with his family where and whenever he pleases,” Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said of the visit.
Rezaian took his first trip to Iran in 2000, shortly after graduating from college. He could not legally enter the country with his American passport, so he opted to get an Iranian passport and become a dual citizen.
Because of his status as a highly regarded reporter, Rezaian’s imprisonment has been the most high-profile of the four Americans released in the prisoner swap. Last month, the National Press Club hosted an event marking the 500th day of Rezaian’s detention, in which participants spent 24 hours reading his stories aloud.
In commemoration of his brother's 500th day in prison, Ali Rezaian traveled to the United Nations in New York to hand-deliver to the Iranian mission to the U.N. a thumb drive with the names of 535,000 people calling for Rezaian’s immediate release. Ali told HuffPost that the Iranian mission in New York has rejected multiple requests from him to meet with Iran’s U.N. ambassador, Gholamali Khoshroo.
On Tuesday, Ali attended President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address as a guest of Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), the Rezaians’ representative. Huffman feels it’s his job to make sure the public outrage over Rezaian’s detention doesn’t fade. “We’ve just got to keep telling that story,” he told HuffPost days before Rezaian's release.
Amir Hekmati, former U.S. Marine
Amir Hekmati, who was imprisoned the longest of the four, was arrested in August 2011 when he traveled to Iran for the first time to visit family. The former U.S. Marine was originally charged in a closed-door hearing with spying for the CIA and sentenced to death. His sentence was later overturned, and he was in prison awaiting a retrial before he was released.
A year and a half ago, Hekmati was granted daily phone calls of five to 10 minutes, most of which he uses to call his mother. “To hear his voice is helpful, but to also know that he’s going to call tomorrow and we’re not going to have anything different to tell him than we did today is very emotionally draining,” Sarah Hekmati, Amir’s sister, told HuffPost on Tuesday, just before her brother was released in the exchange.
Through these phone conversations, Hekmati’s family has learned that he has never had physical access to his attorney in Iran and is suffering from malnourishment. Late last year, he was briefly hospitalized for an infection.
Hekmati, who is fluent in Farsi and Arabic, served in the Marines from 2001 to 2005 as a linguist and cultural adviser, with a stint in Iraq. After leaving the military, he founded a consulting company called Lucid Linguistics LLC, and provided translation services to the military on a contract basis. In 2008, he was listed as one of several people who worked on a study of two-way translation systems financed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the wing of the Pentagon responsible for developing new technology. The following year, Hekmati worked with the New York-based company Kuma Games to secure a contract with the military to develop language training for soldiers deployed abroad. Kuma Games, which specializes in realistic, military-style scenarios, developed a game in 2005 called “Assault on Iran,” in which the player had to locate and destroy a nuclear facility in Iran.
Although Hekmati had no connection to the “Assault on Iran” game, his past work with Kuma Games and his extensive military background, both as a soldier and later as a civilian contractor, likely sparked the suspicion of Iranian officials.
In 2011, Hekmati arranged his first visit to Iran, where he planned to visit his grandmother before returning home to start graduate school at the University of Michigan in the fall. Before he left, his mother told him to seek assurances that his military background wouldn’t “raise red flags” in Iran, his sister said. Hekmati reassured his family that he was very transparent when he applied for a visa through the Iranian interests section in the U.S. and was told it would not be an issue.
But before granting him a visa, officials at the Iranian interests section told Hekmati, who at the time did not have Iranian citizenship, that he would have to become a dual national to travel to Iran. “It was almost as if either you become a dual national or you don’t get to visit you grandmother,” Dr. Ramy Kurdi, Hekmati’s brother-in-law, told HuffPost.
Two weeks into his visit, Hekmati was arrested by Iranian intelligence officials.
In December, four months after his arrest, Iranian state television broadcast a video “confession” from Hekmati. In the sensationalistic six-minute clip, Hekmati says he was recruited by the CIA to infiltrate the Iranian intelligence community as a double agent.
In September 2013, Hekmati penned a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, stating that he was being held on false charges based on a confession “obtained by force, threats, miserable prison conditions, and prolonged periods of solitary confinement.” Hekmati wrote in the letter that his court-appointed attorney suggested he could be released in exchange for two Iranians held abroad, but urged Kerry against a prisoner swap. “I had nothing to do with their arrest, committed no crime, and 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,” he wrote.
At the time, the State Department acknowledged receipt of the letter but denied any discussions with Iran over a prisoner exchange.
When asked if her brother’s feelings about a prisoner swap had changed after four and a half years of imprisonment, Sarah was torn. "Amir, for the sake of his own dignity, even now would feel like, 'What am I? A bargaining chip?'" she told HuffPost on Tuesday, days before the prisoner swap was concluded. “However, we reiterate to President Obama that as a family, we want every measure taken -- everything that’s at his disposal to be considered."
“Justice will never be served for Amir. So to have a just release, to have it under his ideal conditions -- I mean we’re not even considering that, we just want him home,” added Dr. Kurdi, Hekmati's brother-in-law. “He’s very proud, but he wants to get on the plane more than we want him on that plane, and that’s a lot.”
Saeed Abedini, Christian pastor
Abedini was arrested in Iran on Sept. 26, 2012, during what was intended to be a short trip from his home in Boise, Idaho, to Iran to visit family and work on an orphanage he was building in Rasht.
Abedini is an unusual case: He fled Iran to avoid persecution, returned to visit family and continue Christian outreach, left again after signing an agreement to stop evangelizing in Iran, and returned nine more times before finally getting arrested again.
Born in Iran and raised Muslim, Abedini converted to Christianity in 2000 when he was 20 years old. His wife, Naghmeh, told Fox News that he converted after a "radical Muslim group" recruited him and he underwent training to become a suicide bomber, then became depressed.
After converting, Abedini became active in Iran’s “house church” movement. Although the Iranian constitution recognizes Christianity as a minority religion, Christians, especially Muslim converts to Christianity, have faced persecution from the post-revolutionary government in Iran, making it safer for Christians to worship in underground communities. At the time of his arrest, Fox News reported that Abedini's home church movement had established 100 churches in 30 Iranian cities, with over 2,000 members.
Abedini and his wife fled to the U.S. after conservative Iranian politician Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005. Abedini became involved with a church in Boise and later became a U.S. citizen, making him a dual Iranian-American national.
In 2009, Abedini took his wife and two children to Iran for his first visit back. On their way home, Iranian authorities stopped Abedini and detained and interrogated him. According to his U.S.-based attorneys, Abedini signed a written agreement with the government to abstain from participation in the house church movement in exchange for his release and the freedom to continue visiting Iran.
Between 2009 and 2012, Abedini visited Iran nine times before he was arrested. Attorneys from the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative Christian organization based in Washington, took on Abedini’s case and maintain that he abided by his agreement with the government, limiting his work in Iran to humanitarian relief.
Abedini was initially placed under house arrest in July 2012, and later transferred to Evin prison, the notorious facility where Rezaian and Hekmati are held. The following January, he was sentenced to eight years in prison. ACLJ attorneys say the case centered around charges against him from 2000, the year he converted to Christianity. In November 2013, Abedini was transferred from Evin, which is known to hold political prisoners, to Rajai Shahr, a prison with an even worse human rights reputation.
Until recently, Naghmeh campaigned aggressively for her husband’s release. She has over 50,000 followers on Facebook and 10,000 on Twitter, where she writes about scripture, prayer and fasting, and until recently, updated her followers about Abedini.
In November, Christianity Today reported that Naghmeh emailed supporters describing problems in her marriage, including “physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse (through Saeed’s addiction to pornography).” Although she has not retracted those claims, she later said she regretted sending the emails. “I was under great psychological and emotional distress. I am now taking time off to heal and to rest and to spend much needed time with my kids,” she said in a statement through ACLJ.
Not released: Robert Levinson, off-the-books CIA contractor
A retired FBI agent, Levinson disappeared in Iran in March 2007, while there on unofficial business with the CIA. He flew from Dubai to the Iranian Kish Island on March 8, where he was investigating the murder of an Iranian dissident in Maryland. He checked out of his hotel the next morning, and was never seen again.
U.S. government officials have said they believe Levinson is being held by a group tied to Iran’s religious leaders, but the Iranian government claims they have no information about his whereabouts.
In Congressional testimony, the agency denied any affiliation with Levinson, but in 2013, the Washington Post reported that in a violation of policy, a CIA analyst had encouraged Levinson to travel to Iran. Ten employees were disciplined in relation to Levinson’s disappearance, including three who were pushed out of their jobs.
In 2010, Levinson’s family received a videotape of him, begging the U.S. government to respond to the demands of “the group that has held me for three and a half years.” The following year, the family received photos of Levinson shackled and wearing an orange jumpsuit, likely meant to imitate the clothes worn by Guantanamo Bay detainees.
Last March, on the eighth anniversary of Levinson’s disappearance and the eve of his 67th birthday, the FBI raised its reward for information about his case to $5 million.
Privately, government officials have expressed doubt that Levinson, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, gout and hypertension, is still alive.
Levinson joined the FBI in 1978 and retired 20 years later, transitioning into work as a private investigator. By at least 2006, he was doing contract work for the CIA. The Washington Post reported that he provided the agency with information about rebels in Colombia, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Iran’s nuclear program.
Senior administration officials told HuffPost that Levinson was not considered as part of the prisoner swap, but that they hope more information about his post-2007 activity will come to light as a result of the new diplomatic channel between the U.S. and Iran.
Read more on the exchange here: