By Zahava Moerdler
On June 2, 2015, my second day as an intern on Capitol Hill, I attended an incredibly powerful and emotional hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The families of four Americans detained in Iran came before the committee to tell their stories and request assistance in bringing their loved ones home.
In May, Congressman Dan Kildee introduced a resolution that would call on the Iranian government to release the four Americans currently detained in Iran. The resolution had bipartisan support and was co-sponsored by Ranking Member Eliot L. Engel and Chairman Ed Royce of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It was brought before the committee on June 2, when four family-members gave written and oral testimony about their loved ones. For three of the witnesses, their relatives are currently detained in Iranian prisons; one witness’ father is missing in Iran. Iranian prisons are plagued by overcrowding, poor sanitation and sub-standard medical care. Prisoners face violence and abuse, with political prisoners or prisoners of conscience often targeted. The detained Americans have been tortured, are malnourished and have faced or are currently facing “show trials.” One witness detailed how his brother was not allowed to meet his lawyer until a few hours before the trial against him commenced. Another witness described how her husband was tortured and imprisoned because he had organized a Christian prayer group.
Each family member presented his or her emotional and heart-wrenching remarks. Each one hoped to increase pressure on both the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran to return their loved ones. “There is not a day that goes by when we don’t think of him, how much he must be suffering, and what we can do next to bring him home,” Daniel Levinson, son of missing former FBI agent Robert Levinson, said at the hearing. “We need – in fact, we implore – negotiators to take a more aggressive approach than merely asking Iran’s help in locating him. … America should not rest until one of its own is returned home to the family that loves him more than life itself.” Robert Levinson went missing on Iran’s Kish Island in 2007, and it is unclear who is holding him or how he is faring. He has missed his 40th wedding anniversary, the birth of grandchildren and numerous other milestones. The Levinson family just wants to know how he is doing, where he is and when he can be returned home to them.
Another panelist, Sarah Hekmati, began to cry as she described how her father, suffering from brain cancer and now wheelchair-bound, may never get to see his son returned home. Amir Hekmati, a former Marine, traveled to Iran in 2011 to visit his grandmother and other relatives. There, he was detained by police, questioned and accused and tried for espionage. He was sentenced to death. On appeal, the court reversed and issued a sentence of 10 year in prison. He is the only American to ever be sentenced to death in Iran. During his time in prison, he has been tortured and beaten. Sarah, like the other panelists, requested that the United States government make their families’ plights a priority, especially as the nuclear negotiations come to a close.
Nagameh Abedini, another speaker, has traveled around the world in a valiant attempt to bring her husband, Saeed Abedini, home. She has spent the past three years traveling around the world asking foreign leaders and dignitaries for their assistance. As immigrants to the United States, both Nagameh and Saeed cherished the freedom of religion afforded to them here. In 2012, while working to set up churches in Iran, her husband was arrested. During her testimony, Nagameh pleaded with Congress to take action so that perhaps after this trip, she would finally be able to tell her children that their father was coming home. Nagameh also discussed her worries and fears about her husband’s psychological and emotional well-being. Saeed was sent to Rajai Shahr Prison, a notorious jail for murderers and rapists, where he was told that he would not be released, and likely killed, unless he denounced his faith. Like others, Saeed has been tortured and beaten. He is currently residing in solitary confinement, a placement that Nagameh fears will have long-term deleterious effects on his mental well-being.
Finally, Ali Rezaian spoke on behalf of his brother, Jason Rezaian, a journalist with the Washington Post who was imprisoned and accused of espionage last year. Jason has spent half his marriage in jail and away from his wife, Ali stressed. Building on the other testimonies, Ali reiterated his fear of what would happen to his brother after his upcoming trial, and whether or not he would be able to see his brother again.
Although Democrats and Republicans do not agree on all issues, on this they were unanimous: the detention of American citizens and their treatment in Iran is outrageous and unacceptable. Christopher Smith, a Republican Representative from New Jersey, said, “This is something that should be talked about not on the fringes and the sidelines of the negotiations, but as a mainstay issue.” Elliot Engel, Democratic Minority Leader, said, “It would just be ludicrous and outrageous for us to have a deal with Iran that doesn’t include the bring home of our hostages.”
Each representative in attendance voiced the same concerns and anger. All promised that this issue would be a priority and that the status of these detainees would not fall by the wayside. As the hearing adjourned I thought, “How long before these Americans are returned home and at what cost?” I still wonder if this will have any bearing on the on-going nuclear negotiations. I wonder if the Iranian government will use these Americans as leverage in order to further their nuclear ambitions. And I also wonder, in light of the other human rights concerns within Iran, how the rest of the world will respond both to the plight of the Iranian people and to these four innocent individuals detained in a hostile country.
It was clear to me, as I sat in the packed room full of interns, press, staff and the public (including men and women in orange jumpsuits calling for the release of Saeed Abedini), that the individualized testimony had a profound influence on the Committee members and the public. Something I have seen time and again—like when two of the girls freed from Boko Haram testified to Congress in support of #BringBackOurGirls—is that individuals’ stories make human rights concerns real. It is easy to feel removed and distanced from the experiences of those suffering abroad. But one person’s story can give substance, meaning, emotion and humanity to human rights issues.
Zahava Moerdler is a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She is currently interning with the House Foreign Affairs Committee Democratic Staff.
The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.
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