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Obama calls on Iran to release U.S. citizens

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington – — President Barack Obama called Friday on the Iranian government to return U.S. citizens who have been detained or went missing in Iran, including Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine from Flint.

Iran has imprisoned Hekmati, 31, for three and a half years, accusing him of spying for the Central Intelligence Agency. Obama’s message, marking the Persian New Year, also called for the release of Saeed Abedini of Boise, Idaho; and Jason Rezaian of Marin County, California.

Obama added that Iran should help the United States locate retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared more than eight years ago from the resort island of Kish.

“Today, as families across the world gather to mark this holiday, we remember those American families who are enduring painful separations from their loved ones who are imprisoned or went missing in Iran,” Obama said in a statement.

“At this time of renewal, compassion and understanding, I reiterate my commitment to bringing our citizens home.”

Hekmati was born in Arizona and raised in Michigan. Iranian authorities arrested him during a 2011 trip to visit his grandmothers, sentencing Hekmati to death for spying. Iran's Supreme Court annulled the sentence but then convicted him of “cooperating with hostile governments” and sentenced him to 10 years’ imprisonment.

U.S. officials have repeatedly denied that Hekmati is a spy, and he denies any wrongdoing.

Hekmati’s family said this week he has renounced his dual Iranian citizenship and vowed not to return to Iran, if freed.

“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 said in a letter 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.”

Hekmati said he has endured inhumane treatment and felt the “devastation” his captivity has caused family members, including his father who’s stricken with cancer.

“I will never forget being told by a Ministry of Intelligence guard while in the interrogation center that I was only ‘an Iranian by name,’” Hekmati wrote.

“However, it is precisely for the reason that I am American that I have been taken hostage by the Ministry of Intelligence and used as a political bargaining tool.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, has also urged Hekmati’s release. His district includes the area where Hekmati’s parents live.

“Amir is an American citizen who has done nothing wrong, yet continues to languish in an Iranian prison,” Kildee said Friday. “If Iran is serious about rejoining the international community, they must release Amir, so that he can be reunited with his ailing father and the rest of his family in Michigan.”

Iran and six world powers broke off nuclear negotiations Friday to allow the Iranian delegation to attend the funeral of their president’s mother. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement extending condolences to President Hassan Rouhani.

The Associated Press contributed