Hekmati reunited with family in Germany

Melissa Nann Burke and Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

After four and a half years, the family of former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati has been reunited with him at a U.S. military hospital in Germany, following his release from Iran as part of a prisoner swap, officials say.

Around noon EST, Hekmati’s sisters, Sarah and Leila Hekmati, and brother-in-law Dr. Ramy Kurdi, as well as U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, met in person with Amir at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. He is being treated there along with Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and pastor Saeed Abedini.

They spent about 15 minutes together.

“He seems really great. Obviously, he’s been through an incredible ordeal, and you’d expect him to be somewhat exhausted after the last four and a half years and the last few days,” Kildee told MSNBC’S Andrea Mitchell Reports shortly after Monday’s reunion.

It was the first time Kildee had met Hekmati after advocating for his release for years.

“He’s going to be fine. It will take a bit to readjust, but he’s got a great family, and they’re here with him,” Kildee said. “I was just so happy to be able to put my arms around him and give him a big hug.”

Kildee posted a message on his Twitter account that he said Hekmati asked him to share. It read, “Dear Mr. President, Thank you for making my freedom and reunion with my family possible. I’m humbled that you were personally involved in my case and proud to have you as my President.”

Asked about Hekmati’s medical condition, Kildee said a decision on how soon he would be ready to return home would be made by his family, his doctors and Hekmati himself.

“At least a couple of days to get his feet underneath him, but that’s just my judgment,” Kildee added. “It’s understandable it won’t be immediate, but hopefully it won’t be long.”

Interviewed on CNN, Kildee said Hekmati asked him to convey “how proud he is to be an American – to have stood with these other Americans who have gone through this ordeal and have so much support from this administration, from Congress and people back home.”

Earlier in the day, Hekmati family members were in military briefings ahead of an expected reunion with Amir, Kildee spokesman Mitchell Rivard said.

Hekmati was one of four Americans freed as part of a prisoner exchange finalized Saturday by the United States and Iran. Rezaian, Abedini and Nosratollah Khosravi were also released.

President Barack 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.

From the first announcement that the prisoners would be released until they actually left Iran, “it was a combination of jubilation and a whole lot of anxiety until they cleared Iranian airspace,” Kildee told MSNBC. “Honestly, that’s when we began to celebrate.”

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

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 prisoner 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 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.”

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.