As negotiations continue behind closed doors on a deal with Iran to keep that nation from developing nuclear weapons, the families of two Americans imprisoned in Iranian jails traveled to Vienna to plead with officials and take advantage of the media spotlight to make their case for their loved ones’ release.
The family of Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine who has been imprisoned in Iran since 2011, say they have gone through four years of ambiguity and frustration as they’ve tried to get clear answers from the Iranian government. They, like the relatives of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian — jailed for 11 months and now on trial charged with espionage — say their loved ones are being held without due process.
“We've had very little communication if any from Iranian officials. We've written letters appealing that Amir is innocent and this is a mistake. And we hope that this gets to the ears of the officials who are here and can go back and help us,” Sarah Hekmati, Amir’s sister, told NBC in Vienna.
And they worry about the toll months of captivity, relative isolation and uncertainty is taking on their loved ones.
Ali Rezaian says his brother Jason “is very, really distressed right now.”
“He has been in jail for 11 months, he's basically isolated, he sees only one other person. He doesn't get out very much,” Rezaian said of his brother. “They started his trial five weeks ago but he has only had two days of trial, they won't tell him when the next day will be.”
“It's just you know, it’s torturous the unknowing of what's going on, what the next step is and you know, he knows that he is innocent. He knows that he has been there longer than any American journalist ever and there's just no justification for it,” Ali Rezaian said.
Beyond legal concerns, the families also worry about the health of their loved ones.
Amir Hekmati has had persisting lung infections, his family said. They want him to receive general medical testing including blood tests, a chest x-ray and TB test but aren’t sure if he’s getting that type of medical care.
The Hekmati family also feels time is running out. Amir’s father was diagnosed with cancer and has had two strokes while his son has been in prison.
“The doctors actually wrote an appeal here for the officials here as well which we delivered through the State Department while we're in Vienna,” Sarah Hekmati said. “We shouldn't have to come to Vienna to have our voices heard, but sadly because we have been struggling with no answers, we really want answers and we need this to be resolved. “
President Barack Obama on Tuesday stressed that the administration continues to push hard on the issue of American citizens being held in Iran and that it is “a top priority.”
“We're deeply concerned about it. We spend a lot of time pushing on it and we will continue to do so,” the president said. “…when I talk to the families, we remind them of the fact that that is a mission that will continue and has been worked on consistently throughout their captivity.”
The families want the U.S. to take a firmer approach with Iran on the matter.
“What I would say to John Kerry and anybody else who speaks to the Iranians is that when you treat people like that, you make up these kinds of things that it makes it impossible for other governments, and for other companies, to do business with you as well,” Ali Rezaian said.
In the meantime, all of the families await a resolution.
In short once a day phone calls, Amir Hekmati calls his mother to check in on his father. Amir worries that one day he’ll call and learn that his father has died while his son was imprisoned.
“I just want to give him hope because really his phone calls in a way have been a struggle because we can't tell him every day that he is one step closer to being home,” his sister said.