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Iran's Persecution of Pastor Abedini Worsens

Joint Hearing of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations & the Subcommittee on Middle East and North Africa U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, Chairman

Contact: Jeff Sagnip, District Director for Cong. Chris Smith, 202-225-3765, jeff.sagnip@mail.house.gov; chrissmith.house.gov 

WASHINGTON, June 19, 2014 /Christian Newswire/ -- The end of this month will mark two years since Pastor Saeed Abedini has seen or hugged his wife, Nagmeh and children, Rebecca and Jacob.  What started as an uneventful humanitarian trip to build an orphanage for children suffering in Iran has, tragically, left Pastor Saeed's young children fatherless for the last few years.

Pastor Saeed had been arrested in Iran before, but he was released and told he could enter and exit the country for humanitarian aid work if he agreed to cease pastoring house churches. 

As Pastor Saeed's wife, Nagmeh, testified before these same subcommittees in December, Pastor Saeed accepted the Iranian requirement and turned to building an orphanage instead -- but Iran did not uphold its end of the agreement.

Pastor Saeed was arrested in September 2012 and returned to a prison notorious for housing Iran's worst criminals. He was denied contact with his attorney until just before the trial.

The trial was not public, and he and his attorney were barred from participating in key portions of the trial -- following which a judge sentenced him to 8 years in prison for supposedly undermining the security of Iran by sharing his faith and/or practicing Christianity. 

A lot of the details are unclear and discussion is very difficult as the Iranian government has denied Pastor Saeed's own lawyers access to the judicial decisions. He has suffered periods of solitary confinement, beatings, internal bleeding, death threats, and continued psychological torture during his 630 days in prison. 

Although Pastor Saeed was finally permitted to be examined this winter by private physicians in Tehran -- who determined he needed surgery for internal injuries -- he was denied any necessary treatment. Instead, on May 20, 2014, Pastor Saeed was brutally beaten -- at the hospital -- in front of his Iranian family and returned to prison.

Unfortunately, Pastor Saeed isn't the only American held under questionable circumstances by the Iranian government.  Amir Mirzaei Hekmati is a 31-year-old former Marine who disappeared while visiting family in Iran in 2011.  He was subsequently tried and sentenced to death on charges of "cooperating with an enemy state" and accused of "moharebeh" or enmity toward God.  He also has been accused of being a Central Intelligence Agency agent.  Mr. Hekmati has been an Iranian prisoner for more than 1,000 days on these trumped-up charges.  Meanwhile, his father is dying of brain cancer and may never see his son again in life.

The Iranian government also is believed to have imprisoned retired Federal Bureau of Investigations agent Robert Levinson.  Levinson travelled from Dubai to Iran's Kish Island and hasn't been seen since.  In March of 2011, the Administration announced that there were indications that Levinson was being held somewhere in southwest Asia, but the Iranian government has not lived up to its promise to fully investigate his disappearance.  He has now been in captivity for nearly 2,500 days.

The false imprisonment of American citizens did not change under President Hassan Rouhani. While we believe that President Rouhani has significant power that can and should be used for the release of these Americans, we recognize that the Iranian legal system is organized differently than the American legal system and that the judicial branch also bears responsibility.  In the United States, the executive branch investigates, prosecutes, and imprisons those convicted of crimes, and the role of the judiciary is limited to the trial of cases and the hearing of appeals. 

In Iran, the judicial branch investigates and prosecutes alleged crimes. The judiciary tries the cases, executes the sentences, supervises the prisons, and runs programs for the rehabilitation of prisoners.  The Chief Justice is also the official to whom requests for pardons are initially addressed, as he bears the responsibility of making recommendations to the Supreme Leader for "[p]ardoning or reducing the sentences of convicts, within the framework of Islamic criteria." (Article 110 §8).

I therefore respectfully call upon the Chief Justice as we have called on Iran's Foreign Minister and President to help resolve the cases that have become such a sore point between the United States and Iran.  Specifically, I ask that:

  1. The Chief Justice visit or appoint a personal representative to visit Pastor Abedini, Amir Hekmati, and Robert Levinson in the prisons in which they are held;
  2. The Chief Justice review the integrity of their trial processes, and instruct the Prosecutor General to release for public review the full trial and appeal records (including the evidence on which the court relied) for each of their cases; and that
  3. The Chief Justice permit representatives of the Swiss Ambassador in Tehran, H.E. Guilio Haas, to visit with each of these prisoners and to report back to his government, and to ours, on the state of their health and the conditions of their imprisonment. 

My reading of  Article 156 of the Iranian Constitution is that it is the judiciary's role to serve as "the protector of the rights of the individual and society," and that the Chief Justice of Iran, Ayatollah Sadeq Ardeshir Amoli Larijani is, under the constitution, ultimately "responsible for the implementation of justice."
Ironically, Iran wants the world to lift sanctions and trust them with nuclear capabilities despite continued and violent disregard for even basic human rights. Pastor Saeed, Mr. Hekmati and Mr. Levinson are American citizens, but not the only examples of the regime's deliberate disregard for human rights.
The U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, warned in a March 2014 statement: "Hundreds of individuals reportedly remain in some form of confinement for exercising their fundamental rights; including some… 179 Baha'i, 98 Sunni Muslims, 49 Christians, and 14 Dervish Muslims."

While I am grateful that the President raised the case of Pastor Saeed, Mr. Levinson, and Mr. Hekmati in his call with President Rouhani last September, the United States can and must do more to secure the release of these Americans. 

Nagmeh Abedini testified before our committees in December:

"While I am thankful for President Obama's willingness to express concern about my husband and the other imprisoned Americans in Iran during his recent phone conversation with Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, I was devastated to learn that the Administration didn't even ask for my husband's release when directly seated across the table from the leaders of the government that holds him captive.
"My husband is suffering because he is a Christian. He is suffering because he is an American. Yet, his own government at least the Executive and diplomatic representatives has abandoned him. Don't we owe it to him as a nation to stand up for his human rights, for his freedom?"

The U.S. government must not waste another opportunity to secure the release of these three Americans -- their cases need to be front and center in the next round of U.S.-Iranian negotiations. Time is running out.  The families of these men would dearly love them to be home before the next Father's Day.