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U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee appeared on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Tuesday morning discussing the fight to free his constituent who has been held prisoner in Iran for nearly four years.

Kildee, D-Flint Township, joined by TV personality Montel Williams, told the story of the 31-year-old Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine who was in Iran to visit his grandmothers in 2011 when authorities arrested, tried and sentenced him to death for spying.

"There was no evidence. In fact, the espionage charge was set aside, as was the death penalty," Kildee said.

"Now, he's held on a conviction for 'cooperating with a hostile government.' The only fact we have is he served in the United States Marine Corps, and under Iranian law — because he's a first-generation Iranian American — they consider him to be of Iranian decent. Under their logic, an Iranian citizen serving in the U.S. military apparently is cause for 10 years' sentence."

Hekmati, who was born in Arizona and raised in Michigan, has denied any wrongdoing, and U.S. officials have repeatedly denied he is a spy.

The U.S. House last week unanimously approved a resolution sponsored by Kildee urging the release of Hekmati and three other U.S. citizens imprisoned or missing in Iran. A unanimous Senate passed a resolution in May.

Mike Barnicle, a "Morning Joe" contributor, asked whether Iran was using the situation as a "bartering ploy" by the Iranians to use against the U.S. during the ongoing nuclear talks.

"It probably is. We don't want, though, ever for the freedom of these Americans — there are two others, maybe a third — to be exchanged for a concession that makes the world a less safe place," Kildee said.

"We have resisted any temptation to introduce freedom of these Americans into the negotiations. The fact that these negotiations are happening, of course, provides the space for bilateral discussions that has never happened before. It's a fine line that we're trying to walk."

Williams stressed the urgency of "keeping the pressure" on Iran. He's traveling this week with the Hekmati family to Europe to raise awareness there, and also noted a fundraising effort at www.giveforward.com/freeamir to support the family.

"This family has been doing all this out of their own pocket for the last three and a half years," Williams said.

"We're going to bounce around until we get enough noise heard around the world to say this is absolutely egregiously offensive to any countries that have any kind of relationship, if you can just step in and snatch a citizen out of another country because of their family lineage. Something's wrong here."

In addition to Hekmati, other U.S. citizens detained or missing in Iran include pastor Saeed Abedini of Boise, Idaho; Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian of Marin County, California; and former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared eight years ago from the resort island of Kish.

mburke@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8736

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