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A long way from Tehran

"A long way from Tehran" Continued...

Issue: "Rethinking the death penalty," Oct. 19, 2013

Despite the government approval, in September 2012 the Iranian police arrested Saeed, citing his earlier church work and saying he was a threat to national security. The police interrogated him and placed him in solitary confinement in the awful Evin Prison for four months. In January the government sentenced him to eight years in prison, forbidding him to speak to his wife and children for the duration of the sentence. In August, an Iranian court rejected his appeal for release or a reduced sentence. During his time in Evin Prison he has been beaten, suffered internal bleeding, and been denied medical attention. Naghmeh said one interrogator told her husband that he would make sure Saeed was hanged, and the police executed two fellow prisoners in front of him to intimidate him.

HEARTBROKEN: Naghmeh at Capitol Hill hearing on religious minorities in Iran.
American Center for Law and Justice
HEARTBROKEN: Naghmeh at Capitol Hill hearing on religious minorities in Iran.
Rouhani
Mohsen Shandiz/Corbis/AP
Rouhani
HEARTBROKEN: Saeed with Rebekka and Jacob.
American Center for Law and Justice
HEARTBROKEN: Saeed with Rebekka and Jacob.

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Two days after Naghmeh’s encounter with Rouhani, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour interviewed the Iranian president and asked him about releasing Saeed and another American, Amir Hekmati, who is imprisoned on charges of spying on Iran for the CIA. Rouhani demurred by saying he couldn’t interfere in the judicial process, but in the same breath indicated openness to a prisoner swap. 

“This is a sort of mutual request. The U.S. government … must assist those Iranians, those people who are of Iranian citizenship who are in prison here, as we should assist those people who have American citizenships that are incarcerated in Iran,” Rouhani said, according to CNN’s translation.

The reputedly moderate Rouhani came into office this summer with promises of greater societal freedoms, but crackdowns against Christians have continued under his leadership. One example: eight Christians were convicted of threatening national security after police raided their prayer meeting. Naghmeh says Rouhani still has an opportunity to prove he is a moderate, but she’s not buying the story that Iran has turned a new leaf. 

“The Iranian government has played this game many times—to have people calm down and the media back off,” she said. “The Christian convictions have increased. They continue to see Christianity as a threat.”

Until recently, Naghmeh has found meager support for Saeed’s release from her own government. Making a deal is complicated while the United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran, but the U.S. government has been successful in advocacy efforts with past prisoners who weren’t Americans—like Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, released about the same time Saeed was arrested. Secretary of State John Kerry did finally call for Saeed’s release in March, but the administration didn’t comment for months. The State Department in September did issue a general call for Iran to release all “prisoners of conscience.”

Tiffany Barrans, the international legal director at the American Center for Law and Justice, has worked with Naghmeh to secure the release of her husband. Of all the international cases Barrans has worked on with the U.S. government, “this is the least I’ve ever seen them do,” she said. U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook has advocated for Saeed behind the scenes, but Cook’s office has little clout in the State Department, Barrans said. When Barrans meets with diplomats and their staff from other countries, they ask her, “Why haven’t we heard from the U.S. government on this?”

Then on Sept. 27 President Barack Obama made the first phone call from a U.S. president to an Iranian leader since 1979. In their 15-minute conversation, Obama and Rouhani focused on a resolution for Iran’s nuclear program. Obama also asked for the release of Saeed and Hekmati. A White House official recounted the call. Naghmeh said it was the most encouraging news since Saeed’s imprisonment.  

On the first day of school this year Naghmeh tried to be upbeat, but she saw her daughter, Rebekka, 7, looking longingly at the dads bringing their children to school. The irony is not lost on Naghmeh that her children don’t have a father right now because he was working on an orphanage. Rebekka has lost all her teeth since her dad went to prison. Saeed has missed two of her birthdays, but he managed to get a letter to her on her 7th birthday this year. 

“I was trying so hard to protect myself for you little ones. But the Iranian police lied to me that they would not arrest me. Please don’t let your little shoulders bear so much burden,” he wrote. “In this new year of your life I want you to stand strong as you have stood the previous year and be patient and endure.”

The hardest time for Naghmeh is bedtime, because Saeed always put the children to bed. Before they would go to sleep he would sing and pray with them. Naghmeh said sometimes the singing and praying would go on and on, and she would interrupt to say the kids had to go to sleep. Now he’s gone at bedtime, and she is depleted after doing everything for the kids from the moment they woke up. But Naghmeh has found them singing worship songs together or praying, entirely on their own initiative. 

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