Former Iran detainees: Publicity helped their case

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By JEFF KAROUB, Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) — When Haleh Esfandiari was arrested by Iranian officials in 2007, she and her family had a plan: Go public with her plight. As the Iranian-American citizen sat in prison, her supporters appeared frequently in the media and appealed to U.S. and Iranian representatives.

Four months later, Esfandiari was released.

The decision to publicly pressure the Tehran government stands in stark contrast to the case of another Iranian-American currently held in an Iranian prison. Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine, was sentenced to death earlier this year by an Iranian court after being convicted of working for the CIA. Relatives deny the allegations and hired an attorney and a crisis public relations firm, but unlike Esfandiari, they are keeping quiet about the case.

"If the (Hekmati) family was going to call me today and say, 'What is your experience?' I would tell them that in my case going public helped," said Esfandiari, director of Middle East Programs at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Tensions have been high for years between the U.S. and Iran, and several dual citizens have been jailed by the Iranian government on various charges. Though in many cases, families, employers and other supporters have been outspoken in their pleas for release, the political maneuvering inside the Iranian government and the fact that the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Tehran make it difficult to know which approach works best.

In Hekmati's case, the stakes are especially high. He is the first U.S. citizen to be sentenced to death in Iran since the Islamic Revolution 33 years ago.

Tehran accuses Hekmati, 28, of receiving special training and serving at U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan before heading to Iran for an alleged intelligence mission. A 20-day deadline apparently set last month by Iranian officials to appeal the death sentence has passed, but it's not clear what that means for Hekmati's fate.

The U.S. government has called Hekmati a victim of false charges, and State Department officials say Swiss diplomats — who represent the U.S. interests in Iran — have tried unsuccessfully at least three times to gain access to him. Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said recently that the U.S. government is growing more concerned about Hekmati's well-being the longer he is imprisoned with no outside access.

In December, Iran broadcast a video on state television in which Hekmati, who was born in Arizona and attended high school in Michigan, was shown delivering a purported confession in which he said he was part of a plot to infiltrate Iran's Intelligence Agency. After the video's release, his father, who teaches at a community college in Flint, Mich., said his son was in Iran visiting his grandmothers and denied he ever worked for the CIA. His family released a statement after his conviction in early January, but since then, his father and other family members have repeatedly declined interview requests.

Behind the scenes, Hekmati's family hired the Los Angeles-based David House Agency, which describes itself as "an international crisis resource agency," and former U.S. diplomat Pierre Prosper has taken up the case. Eric Volz, managing director of the agency, would not comment on the case, and Prosper did not return messages.

Family friend Muna Jondy, a Flint attorney, said the family has been publicly silent based on advice from "an army of experts."

"I think they're just really concerned about what could potentially happen to him even if the slightest wrong thing is said," Jondy said.

Hekmati's jailing comes as relations between Tehran and Washington are increasingly strained over Iran's disputed nuclear program and ambitions to widen military and political influence in the Middle East. While the U.S. and other countries suspect Iran is engaged in a clandestine effort to build nuclear weapons, Tehran insists that is it interested only the peaceful uses of atomic energy.

Hekmati's family and the U.S. government could be keeping low profiles in the case in an effort not to inflame the already tense situation between the two countries, experts say.

"Detained American citizens can become a political football in those types of arguments," said Mike Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "What the U.S. government would want to do is shield this case from the broader problems in the relationship and try to treat it as a separate issue, a humanitarian issue."

Esfandiari notes her family situation could be different than Hekmati's, but when she was arrested, both her family and her employer "went on the offense."

"When they told me in prison (officials) said, 'Tell your family not to go public,'" said Esfandiari, who was accused by Iranian authorities of conspiring to overthrow the government. "I told them, 'I'm sorry. My family is not going to listen to what I tell them. Even if I tell them not to go public, they won't listen.'"

Another former detainee said Iran is no doubt putting a lot of pressure on Hekmati and his family is likely under a great deal of pressure not to publicize the case. Maziar Bahari, a Canadian-Iranian journalist who was freed on $300,000 bail in October 2009 after nearly four months in detention, said he doesn't believe keeping quiet will boost Hekmati's chances of being freed.

"No one has ever been released because they've remained silent, but many have ... perished because they remained silent," Bahari said by phone from London.

"In my case being vocal helped me. I don't think I'd be here speaking with you if I were not vocal," he said.

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Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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