The State Department said Monday that it was working to confirm Iranian state media reports that an Iran revolutionary court had sentenced an American citizen and former U.S. Marine Amir Mirzaei Hekmati to death on charges of spying for the CIA.
"If true, we strongly condemn this verdict," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a press statement Monday. "Allegations that Hekmati either worked for, or was sent to Iran by the CIA, are simply untrue."
Hekmati "has 20 days to appeal the court's decision," the Washington Post's Thomas Erdbrink reported from Tehran.
Hekmati, 28, a former U.S. Marine Arabic language translator in Iraq, was born in Flagstaff, Arizona of Iranian descent and raised in Michigan. His family in Michigan, former colleagues and American officials say Hekmati never served in the CIA and was in Iran to visit his grandmother.
Hekmati's parents said they "are shocked and terrified" by the news, his mother Behnaz Hekmati wrote at the website the family set up to advocate for Amir's release, FreeAmir. "We believe that this verdict is the result of a process that was neither transparent nor fair."
Amir Hekmati on vacation in Colombia in 2010. (Courtesy of Hekmati family/Yahoo News)
"Amir did not engage in any acts of spying, or 'fighting against God,' as the convicting Judge has claimed in his sentence," his mother's press statement continues. "A grave error has been committed, and we have authorized our legal representatives to make direct contact with the Iranian authorities to find a solution to this misunderstanding."
Hekmati had the permission of the Iranian interests section--the U.S.-based diplomatic outpost for the Islamic republic--in Washington D.C. to travel to Iran in August to visit his elderly grandmother, his family has told Yahoo News. After his arrest on August 29, Iranian officials initially urged the family to keep quiet in order to facilitate his release.
But in December, Iranian state media aired video of Hekmati allegedly confessing to having worked as a CIA agent--charges his family and friends vehemently deny and which they said appear to have been given under duress.
Hekmati joined the Marines in 2001 after graduating from high school. He was posted to Iraq after attending language school in Monterey, Calif. He left the Marines in 2005, and later worked for various companies, including based in Kansas for the government contractor BAE Systems from March until September 2010, Yahoo News previously reported.
Former U.S. Marine Jared Bystrom told Yahoo News Tuesday that Hekmati called him last year to propose launching a business together. Bystrom and Hekmati had been posted by the Marines to the defense language school in Monterey, California in 2001, where Hekmati studied Arabic.
Another friend and former colleague of Hekmati's, Chase Winter, told Yahoo News last month that Hekmati had told him he was thinking of going back to school to get a business degree. Hekmati visited Winter in South America last September 2010 for a week's vacation, Winter said.
Hekmati's Facebook page until shortly after his Iran TV video "confession" last month featured photos of himself in various locales he had traveled and worked--hardly demonstrating the behavior of someone trying to conceal his activities, his associates note.
American officials again called Monday for the Iran government to give Swiss diplomats consular access to Hekmati, to allow him to meet with a lawyer, and to release him "without delay."
"Securing the freedom and safety of this young man is the top concern of the U.S. government in this case," a U.S. official who requested anonymity said Monday. "Unfortunately, the Iranian government is not doing the right thing here. They have a track record of falsely accusing individuals of espionage for leverage."
International human rights groups also called on Iran to reverse the sentence, and raised concerns about the apparent lack of due process Hekmati was granted. Hekmati is the first American to be sentenced to death in Iran since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Amnesty International said.
"Like many other detainees in Iran, Amir Hekmati did not receive a fair trial and we question the timing and political circumstances of this decision," said Ann Harrison, Amnesty International's interim director for the Middle East and North Africa. "We know from past experience that the Iranian authorities sometimes rush forward with executions of political prisoners — including dual nationals — at politically sensitive times and we fear that this execution could happen within days or weeks."
"We are seriously concerned regarding the death sentence, secrecy, and continued lack of transparency surrounding the prosecution of Iranian-American citizen Amir Hekmati," the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran's Hadi Ghaemi said in a press release Monday. "We ask the Iranian judiciary to adhere to international standards of due process and allow independent observers in the courtroom at his appeals trial."
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