Update: The House Foreign Affairs Committee has passed H.Res. 233, according to Chairman Ed Royce's office. This bipartisan measure, introduced by Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), calls for Iran to immediately release the United States citizens it holds and provide any information on the United States citizens that have disappeared within its borders.
Today marked the fourth time Mrs. Naghmeh Abedini has testified in front of Congress on behalf of her husband Saeed, who has been languishing in an Iranian prison for daring to practice his Christian faith.
“These next few weeks are very crucial time,” she said. “Either way we lose if we don’t get the Americans out before talks are over, while we still have leverage. They are being held on bogus charges.”
The House Foreign Affairs Committee convened today to hold a hearing on the importance of bringing Saeed home, as well as three other Americans currently held hostage in Iran. A frequent and agreed upon notion throughout the hearing, was that these Americans should be released before the United States even considers reaching a nuclear deal with Iran.
First, here's some background on each of the four Americans held in Iran, courtesy of Homeland Security Chairman Ed Royce’s office:
Jason Rezaian is a journalist who was born and raised in California and hoped to use his position at the Washington Post to present a greater understanding of the Iranian people. Arrested on trumped-up charges, he’s been held for over 300 days at the infamous Evin prison. Like every other aspect of his case, his trial opened last week shrouded in secrecy.
In September 2012, Iran arrested and later sentenced pastor Saeed Abedini to eight years for gathering with others to study the Bible – as his wife notes, a lawful act even under Iranian law, but one which the regime deemed a threat to national security.
In August 2011, Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine, was sentenced to death for alleged espionage. Upon appeal, the sentence was reduced to 10 years. His sister will tell us how Amir has been beaten on his feet with cables and tasered repeatedly in the kidneys. His father is gravely ill.
In 2007 Robert Levinson, went missing on Iran’s Kish Island. Eight years later, Iran continues to refuse to assist the United States in locating him. As Daniel notes, his father is the longest-held hostage in American history.
Four family members of the Iranian hostages, including Mrs. Abedini, testified today on Capitol Hill, sharing terrifying details about the poor physical and mental conditions of their loved ones.
Sitting behind an Oakland Athletic’s baseball cap, Ali Rezaian spoke passionately about his brother Jason. He said his brother has suffered infections, lost 40 pounds, is dealing with a respiratory condition and is often kept in solitary confinement. He finished his remarks with hopes Jason can come home so he and his son Paxton can attend an A’s game this summer.
Mrs. Abedini wore a picture of her husband around her neck while explaining how he has been sentenced to eight years in prison, simply for being a Christian. Some of the tortuous conditions Iranian authorities have put him through include being beaten in the first few months and suffering from internal injuries, being sent to exile prison, put in a murder ward, covered with lice, and put in and out of solitary three times now. The last time he was placed in solitary, she said, happened to be the same day the US agreed on a nuclear framework with Iran.
“Every day I wake up with an excruciating pain,” she said. “Life is no longer pain free. My children have had to go without a father and mother for three years now.”
As she continues to advocate for her husband, Mrs. Abedini must try and explain to her children why she keeps leaving home. All she can tell them is, “It’s for daddy.”
Ms. Sarah Hekmati, Amir’s sister, said her brother was once held in a 1 meter, by 1 meter cell, tasered, and has also been held for months in solitary confinement. She broke down in tears when describing how her father has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and is now confined to a wheelchair. He deserves to see his son, she reasoned.
“We feel as if we’ve exhausted every option,” Ms. Hekmati said. “Our only reassurance is being told by the US that they are bringing it up on the sidelines of the negotiations.”
Daniel Levinson, speaking on behalf of his father Robert, whom he hasn't spoken to since 2007, said it was time the American government acted to bring him home.
“My father has missed so many milestones,” he said. “He has missed too much of our lives.”
Daniel explained how, in November 2010, his family received a video from an anonymous email address that showed his father looking gaunt and sickly, seemingly to taunt the US government.
Because of his horrifying situation, Mr. Levinson too had strong words for the controversial Iranian nuclear negotiations.
“We do worry that regardless of the outcome of the deal, I don’t know if there will be an urgency to get any family members home anymore because it would be a propaganda win,” he said. “There will be no urgency to increase the pressure. If talks fail, we could lose engagement and go back to square one.”
I’ll leave you with a statement made by Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), who summed up all of these emotional testimonies with one demand:
“Iran should release Americans it holds unjustly," he said. "Iran cannot hold Americans as political prisoners if it wants to be taken seriously in the global community."
Rep. Kildee isn't the only one who is not letting these testimonies go unheard. Several congressmen apologized to the witnesses for failing to bring these four brave Americans home and pledged to do better. The committee will consider H.Res. 233 later today, which will call for the release of these prisoners before any deal is signed.
The goal is clear. Until Jason, Saeed, Amir, and Robert are released, any nuclear deal we are considering with Iran needs to be sidelined.