Hekmati’s family flies to Germany to reunite

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Amir Hekmati, a former Marine from Flint who was imprisoned in Iran for more than four years, is free.

Hekmati, 32, flew Sunday from Iran to Switzerland, which had served as an intermediary in negotiations, and then traveled to Germany, according to his family.

Family members, joined by U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint Township, are flying to Landstuhl, Germany, and expect to reunite with Hekmati later Sunday.

"It is hard to put into words what our family feels right now," Hekmati'she family said in a statement. "But we remain in hopeful anticipation until Amir is in our arms. As many of you know, Amir's father is very ill and soon he will embrace his son once more."

"We are incredibly grateful for today’s news. We thank our government, and we thank all of you whose thoughts and prayers helped us tremendously since Amir was taken from us in 2011."

Congressman Dan Kildee waits with the Hekmati family in Michigan of the news that their son Amir is safe and on his way home from Iran.

Hekmati was one of four Americans freed as part of a prisoner exchange finalized Saturday by the U.S. and Iran. Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, Christian pastor Saeed Abedini and Nosratollah Khosravi were also released.

President Barak Obama discussed the exchange on Sunday, one day after he signed executive orders lifting some economic sanctions on Iran as part of a nuclear deal brokered last year. The International Atomic Energy Agency certified that Iran had met its obligations under that deal, which requires Iran to put curbs on its nuclear program.

"I gave these families my word -- I made a vow -- that we would do everything in our power to win the release of their loved ones,” the president said. “And we have been tireless. On the sidelines of the nuclear negotiations, our diplomats at the highest level, including Secretary Kerry, used every meeting to push Iran to release our Americans. I did so myself, in my conversation with President Rouhani. After the nuclear deal was completed, the discussions between our governments accelerated. Yesterday, these families finally got the news that they have been waiting for. ...

"Amir Hekmati is coming home. A former sergeant in the Marine Corps, he’s been held for four and a half years. Today, his parents and sisters are giving thanks in Michigan."

Hekmati, born in Arizona and raised in Michigan, was the longest-held American prisoner in Iran. He had been in prison for more than 1,600 days following his arrest on Aug. 29, 2011.

Hekmati was arrested while visiting his grandmother and accused of spying, a charge U.S. officials have repeatedly denied. He was initially sentenced to death, but the sentence was tossed, and he was resentenced in 2014 to 10 years in prison on a lesser charge.

Kildee, who long advocated for Hekmati's release, had gathered with Hekmati’s family this weekend in Michigan as they awaited confirmation of his release.

“Amir Hekmati is coming home,” Kildee said in a Sunday statement. “I am overcome with emotion that after four and a half years, this terrible ordeal is ending and the Hekmati family will soon be reunited with Amir.”

Kildee thanked President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and members of his own staff who worked to secure Hekmati's release.

“Amir, I cannot wait to meet you for the first time, give you a big hug, and welcome you home,” he said.

Hemati was part of an exchange deal that will see the U.S. release six Iranian-Americans and one Iranian who had been sentenced to prison or awaiting trial for violating sanctions or trade embargoes, according to officials, who stressed that none of the prisoners were accused of terrorism or violent crimes. They will receive pardons or clemency.

A fifth American, student Matthew Trevithick, was released independently of the prisioner swap on Saturday and was already was on his way home.

The release of the prisoners and the nuclear deal developments cap weeks of intense U.S.-Iran diplomacy that took several unexpected turns after an Iranian ballistic missile test in October and then the detention on Jan. 12 by Iran of 10 U.S. Navy sailors and their two boats in the Persian Gulf.

The prisoner talks ran parallel to the nuclear negotiations and picked up steam when that deal was finalized in October, according to U.S. officials, who said the president and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had consistently raised the prisoner issue with Iran.

“The imprisonment of Amir and the other U.S. citizens held captive by Iran was unjust,” Michigan Sen. Gary Peters said Sunday in a statement celebrating his release. “Though we welcome all our American prisoners home, the U.S. must work in a coordinated fashion to vigorously enforce the terms of the nuclear deal and hold Iran accountable for their military provocations and terrorist activity that breeds instability and violence in the Middle East.”

Hekmati had been allowed to leave prison for medical treatment in recent weeks, his family told The New York Times. He was taken to an outside hospital due to lymph node swelling in his face and neck.

Hekmati's family has said that he has lost significant weight in prison and has trouble breathing, raising fears he could contract tuberculosis.

His sister said her brother renounces his dual Iranian citizenship and vows to never return to Iran if he’s allowed to leave. He made the comments in a letter he dictated to his mother by phone.

"It has become very clear to me that those responsible view Iranian-Americans not as citizens or even human beings, but as bargaining chips and tools for propaganda," he wrote in the letter sent to the Iranian Interest Section in Washington.

"Considering how little value the Ministry of Intelligence places on my Iranian citizenship and passport, I, too, place little value on them and inform you, effectively that I formally renounce my Iranian citizenship and passport."

Frederick J. Ryan, Jr., publisher of The Washington Post, said in a statement, "We couldn't be happier to hear the news that Jason Rezaian has been released from Evin Prison. Once we receive more details and can confirm Jason has safely left Iran, we will have more to share."

Trevithick, the student from Hingham, Massachusetts, went to Iran in September for a four-month language program at an institute associated with Tehran University, his family said in a statement. It said he was held for 40 days in Evin Prison, but gave no reason for his detention.

The negotiations over the American detainees grew out of the Iran nuclear talks. In discussions in Europe and elsewhere, Kerry and nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman were able to establish a separate channel of talks that would focus on the U.S. citizens.

But that channel was kept separate from the nuclear conversations. American officials didn't want the citizens used as leverage in the nuclear talks, and didn't want to lose their possible release if the talks failed to produce an agreement.

The discussions then gained speed after last July's nuclear deal. In talks in Geneva and elsewhere, a team led by Obama's anti-Islamic State group envoy, Brett McGurk, worked on the details of a possible prisoner swap. The Iranians originally sought 19 individuals as part of the exchange; U.S. officials whittled down the number to seven.

U.S. officials stressed that the Americans were a priority. But the Iranians wanted a goodwill gesture or reciprocal measure in return, the officials said.

Among American politicians, Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan gave cautious praise to the release of the prisoners, particularly Abedini, but said they never should have been held in the first place. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders praised diplomacy as the key to solving the detainee issue.

Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007 while working for the CIA on an unapproved intelligence mission, wasn't part of the deal. American officials are unsure if the former FBI agent is even still alive. The Iranians have always denied knowing his location.

Levinson's case was aggressively pursued, the officials said, adding that Iran has committed to continue cooperating in trying to determine Levinson's whereabouts.

The exchange also didn't cover Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman who advocated better ties between Iran and the U.S. He was reportedly arrested in October.

According to the official IRNA news agency, the seven freed Iranians are Nader Modanloo, Bahram Mechanic, Khosrow Afghahi, Arash Ghahraman, Tooraj Faridi, Nima Golestaneh and Ali Saboonchi. It didn't provide any further details.



The Associated Press contributed