626 days and counting. That’s how long a young Iranian-American man from Flint has been in police custody in Tehran.
Two years ago, Amir Hekmati traveled to Iran to visit his grandmother. Iranian officials accused Hekmati of spying for the CIA, seizing the ex-Marine and throwing him into prison.
In January 2012, Hekmati was sentenced to death for his alleged conspiring with the U.S. government.
Later, the Iranian Supreme Court overturned his sentence, but Hekmati is still waiting in prison for a retrial — with no apparent end in sight.
But Hekmati’s family, based in Michigan, hasn’t stopped fighting for Amir’s release.
Since his arrest in 2011, Amir’s family has posted pictures in Times Square, hosted art exhibitions in Detroit, and urged state officials in Washington to move on the case.
“We’re not getting a lot of movement from Iran,” Amir’s sister Sarah Hekmati told us on Stateside. “But we’re trying to raise awareness of the situation.”
And to some degree, the situation appears to be getting better.
In March, Amir was able to start organizing monthly visits from his uncle in Tehran, and just this month, he has been permitted to send letters to family in the U.S. — the first communication Amir has had with his family in over 20 months.
His first letters back home, his sister said, focused on family, not his life in prison.
“It was heartfelt letters,” Sarah Hekmati said. “He reflected on relationships, and didn’t shed light on his conditions.”
The lifting of the ban on communication with family also gave Amir the chance to learn more devastating news — his father’s recent diagnosis with brain cancer.
Sarah said in letters, Amir urges his father to keep fighting and stay strong in the face of chemotherapy.
“He told my father, ‘I know you’re a strong man, and I hope one day to be by your side.’,” said Sarah. “I felt so moved to see my brother, in his condition, trying to console my father.”
The relative easing of his sentence comes after a 16-month stint in solitary confinement. In a recent New York Times article, Sarah said the looser restrictions on Amir’s life in prison suggests “possible signs that Iran eventually could release him.”
This week, Sarah plans on meeting with the Swiss ambassador to Iran — the United States has no official diplomatic ambassador to the Middle Eastern nation — in the hopes of expediting her brother’s release. Sarah’s been in contact with lawmakers from Michigan, like Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), who’s also meeting with the Swiss diplomat to see how he can help with Amir’s release.
And with a new Secretary of State in office, Sarah is hopeful that Amir’s case will remain on the radar of state officials.
“It’s daunting, but it’s the only thing I can do to feel like I’m doing something for him,” Sarah said.
“We have to be his voice; he doesn’t have a voice.”
But Sarah remains hopeful. She said the support her family has received has been constant, from a middle schooler in New Jersey presenting Amir’s case in class, to a Michigan group writing a song inspired by Amir.
“We’ve gotten overwhelming support,” Sarah says. “So many wonderful people, complete strangers reaching out.”
For more information on the family’s effort to release Amir, visit their website here.