January 21, 2016
Whitney M. Woodworth
U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon, who fought for the release of Amir Hekmati while the Flagstaff native was held in Iran for almost 4½ years, says he plans to stay in touch and continue to support the freed captive and his family.
Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine, was one of four captives released in Iran on Saturday as part of a prisoner swap.
"The ordeal doesn't end just because they're home," Salmon said in an interview Wednesday. "Amir had to live through hell while he was held in captivity in Iran for years of his life that he'll never get back."
After spending more that 1,600 days in an Iranian jail, Hekmati was reunited in Michigan with his family, who had spent years campaigning for his release.
Hekmati was born in Flagstaff and raised in Flint, Mich. In August 2011, while visiting his sick grandmother in Iran, he was detained and subsequently imprisoned on espionage charges.
Salmon said the physical and emotional toll of his incarceration means that Hekmati has a long road of recovery ahead.
"Just because he's home doesn't mean that everything is going to be wonderful now," the Arizona Republican said. "I think we have a responsibility to see this through."
After Hekmati was detained, he was convicted of spying and sentenced to death in 2012. After a higher court ordered a retrial, he was sentenced in 2014 to 10 years on a lesser charge.
After his release, he denied any wrongdoing. He said his imprisonment included physical and mental torture and long periods of solitary confinement in a tiny cell in the Evin Prison in Tehran notoriously known for its harsh conditions.
To raise awareness about Hekmati's incarceration, Salmon and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., attended the 2016 State of the Union address with Amir's sister, Sarah Hekmati, and his brother-in-law, Dr. Ramy Kurdi, as their guests.
Salmon said he became drawn to Amir's plight about a year ago, after he met his sister at a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting.
"I was very moved by her comments and all of her hard work to get her brother back," he said.
Salmon previously worked with talk show host Montel Williams to publicize the incarceration in a Mexican jail of retired Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi. Salmon said he believed it was America's responsibility to take care of those who have served in the armed forces.
"Anytime somebody serves their country in the military, I feel a strong affinity for them," Salmon said. "I don't think we should leave anybody behind."
Sarah Hekmati said her brother has renounced his dual Iranian citizenship and in a letter vowed to never return to Iran.
"It has become very clear to me that those responsible view Iranian-Americans not as citizens or even human beings but as bargaining chips and tools for propaganda," he wrote in the letter sent to the State Department's Iranian interest section in Washington.
"Considering how little value the Ministry of Intelligence places on my Iranian citizenship and passport, I, too, place little value on them and inform you, effectively that I formally renounce my Iranian citizenship and passport."
In a statement posted on social media, Hekmati expressed his gratitude for the outpouring of support that he and his family received.
On Saturday, Iran also released Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, pastor Saeed Abedini and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari. A fifth American detained in Iran, Matthew Trevithick, was released in a move unrelated to the swap, U.S. officials said.
In a statement, Salmon said he "welcomed this excellent, if tragically delinquent, news of our Americans' release" but was disappointed in the negotiations that led to their freedom.
"Five innocent people were traded for 21 thugs ... in addition to over $100 billion to get these hostages free," he said, referring to the Obama's administration's release of seven people who violated sanctions and agreement to not pursue 14 Iranians wanted for trafficking arms.
"I got to tell you: If I ever had a business deal to negotiate, I certainly wouldn't want John Kerry as my negotiator," Salmon said. "I'd probably lose my shirt."
He expressed concern about the whereabouts of missing former-FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007.
"His family doesn't even know if he's alive or dead," Salmon said.