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Lansing — Marine veteran Amir Hekmati, freed in January after spending four and a half years in an Iranian prison, received a standing ovation from state legislators Thursday during an annual Memorial Day service in the Michigan Senate.

“It’s the first Memorial Day in five years that I’m back in the United States, so it’s a special Memorial Day for me,” Hekmati told reporters in a brief statement.

The 32-year-old Flint resident attended the ceremony as a guest of Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint. He called Memorial Day a bittersweet experience.

“Sweet because you remember having taken part in our nation’s defense, but bitter because of the sacrifices that were made by some of my fellow Marines who aren’t here today,” he said.

In a lawsuit filed against Iran earlier this month, Hekmati accused the Iranian government of torture and false imprisonment following his August 2011 arrest while visiting his grandmother and other relatives in the country. He was accused of espionage and other charges the United States disputed.

In the complaint, Hekmati’s attorneys alleged physical and psychological abuses, including 17 months of confinement with little human contact and guards who whipped the bottom of his feet, struck him with a Taser and forced him to stay in stress positions for multiple hours.

Hekmati was one of four American prisoners freed in a mid-January exchange about a day following the lifting of sanctions on Iran by the United States and other countries after international inspectors determined compliance with a nuclear deal.

The Senate’s annual Memorial Day celebration, which began 22 years ago, included color guard and bagpipe processions. Dozens of active military members and veterans joined legislators on the floor, where they and fallen service members were honored.

Ananich kept the seat next to him empty last year to recognize Hekmati, who remained behind bars at that time.

“We’re very fortunate today to have him with us,” Ananich said, noting the prayers for Hekmati from people all around the state and country.

The Marine veteran was greeted by several legislators, along with Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, before and after the session. Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, gave Hekmati a “Free Amir” button that he had kept on his Senate desk.

“I don’t need it anymore. It’s yours,” Hansen said.

Hekmati was reunited with some family members in Germany on Jan. 17.He returned to Flint on Jan. 22, where he was greeted by his mother and other family at Bishop International Airport.

“I’m just happy to be home, back in my home state of Michigan and be amongst people that supported me and cared for me,” he said Thursday.

joosting@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3660

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