Family of detained Iranian-American “shocked” at spy charges

Laura Rozen

The family members of an Iranian-American man being held in Iran as an alleged spy said Tuesday they are shocked by the accusations, which they said are untrue.

Amir Hekmati, 28, a former U.S. Marine linguist from Flint, Michigan, was given permission by the Iran interests section in Washington, D.C. to travel to Iran to visit his elderly grandparents and relatives there, his family said in a statement emailed to journalists covering the case Tuesday.

Hekmati entered Iran on August 14th, and was detained more than two weeks later. Iran authorities urged the family to keep silent to help facilitate negotiations for his release.

"The Iranian government detained Amir on August 29, 2011 without any charges, and urged our family to remain silent with the promise of an eventual release," the family said in the statement.

But on Sunday, Iranian television broadcast a video of Hekmati allegedly "confessing" to having been a CIA agent sent to infiltrate Iran. Hekmati's family said Tuesday the charges are outrageous and untrue.

The family was "shocked by the recent broadcast aired on Iranian TV with false information and a forced confessions," the statement said. "Amir has never had any affiliation with the CIA, and these allegations are untrue."

Amir's family "hopes that this misunderstanding can be resolved peacefully with Iran, and that Amir can be reunited with his family and friends in the US who miss him dearly, and are praying for his safe return," the statement said.

The family--Amir's father Ali Hekmati works as a professor of biology at a community college in Flint, Michigan--said in the statement that Hekmati served in the U.S. Marines from 2001 until 2005.

After he left the Marines in 2005, Hekmati later worked as a contractor for BAE Systems in 2010 based in Kansas, among other jobs. He also started his "own linguistics company and contracted his services to the military as well as civilian businesses," CNN reported. "His military contracts included cultural competency training. He worked with troops at military bases to promote understanding of and positive communication with people of other cultures, his family said."

Another former U.S. Marine, Jared Bystrom, told Yahoo News Tuesday that he and Hekmati had been posted by the Marines to the defense language school in Monterey, California in 2001. Hekmati had studied Arabic, Bystrom said. Hekmati later served as a linguist in Iraq.

Hekmati called Bystrom last year to propose possibly opening a business together, after business school, Bystrom told Yahoo News. (Bystrom, now a police officer in Illinois, said he was intrigued by the idea, but with a young family he wasn't in a position to immediately uproot everybody and move to the East Coast.)

Bystrom said he was disturbed that Hekmati--who liked to lift weights and who had been a boxer back in Michigan--looked so much thinner on the videotape released by Iranian authorities last weekend.

Another friend and former colleague of Hekmati's, Chase Winter, told Yahoo News Monday that Hekmati had told him last year he was thinking of going back to school to get a business degree.  Hekmati and another pal visited him in South America last September 2010 for a week's vacation and fun, Winter said.

Hekmati's Facebook page until a few days ago had his posted photos of himself in various locales he had worked, seemingly not trying to hide his life or past work in the U.S. military, friends said. That led several associates and observers to cast doubt on Iranian claims he was some deep-cover American spy.

Hekmati also, according to an ABC News report Monday, had both United States and Iranian citizenship. Associates noted that obtaining CIA security clearances for American citizens who had even just lived abroad was already a big hassle, and suggested it would be even more of a red-tape nightmare for an Iranian-American dual citizen with so many family members in Iran.

Another Farsi-speaking Washington Iran watcher said the videotape of Hekmati's "confession" appeared to have been edited to serve Iranian propaganda purposes. For instance, Hekmati says a friend asked him to do a favor. Then there's an edited bit. Then the video has Hekmati saying that he agreed. But it's not clear that what Hekmati was saying he agreed to sequentially followed, the Iran watcher noted.

That's not necessarily how the case would be seen in Iran. Conservative Iranian newspaper Kayhan published a column basically detailing Hektami's recent past, another Iran analyst said. "It raises several questions that [one] can't simply brush off... as an unlucky guy who was picked up by Iranians while visiting his grand mom. ....Also, let's not forget it just comes on the heels of the drone case."

The State Department called on Iran to release Hekmati, and for Swiss diplomats to be granted immediate access to him.

"We have seen this story before: the Iranian regime has a history of falsely accusing people of being spies, of eliciting forced confessions, and of holding innocent foreigners for political reasons," a State Department official said Monday.

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