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American Siamak Namazi is on a hunger strike in Iranian prison. Why now and for what?

Namazi is on a hunger strike to mark the seventh anniversary of a prisoner swap that did not include him, and calling on Biden to free detainees in Iran. His lawyer spoke with NPR about those efforts.

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A mural in Washington, D.C. depicts Americans Siamak Namazi (left), who remains in Iran, and Jose Angel Pereira, who was released from Venezuela in October.
A mural in Washington, D.C. depicts Americans Siamak Namazi (left), who remains in Iran, and Jose Angel Pereira, who was released from Venezuela in October. Patrick Semansky | AP

Siamak Namazi, a U.S. citizen imprisoned in Iran since 2015, has embarked on a hunger strike to mark the seventh anniversary of being left behind in a deal that freed other Americans.

In a letter delivered to the White House by his lawyer, the 51-year-old Iranian-American said he was beginning a seven-day hunger strike on Monday, which was also the seventh anniversary of the Iran nuclear deal.

"When the Obama Administration unconscionably left me in peril and freed the other American citizens Iran held hostage on January 16, 2016, the U.S. Government promised my family to have me safely home within weeks," Namazi wrote in his letter. "Yet seven years and two presidents later, I remain caged in Tehran's notorious Evin prison, holding that long overdue IOU along with the unenviable title of the longest held Iranian-American hostage in history."

Namazi implored President Biden to devote one minute of every day this week — one "for each year of my life that I lost in Evin prison after the U.S. Government could have saved me but didn't" — to thinking about the U.S. hostages held in Iran. They include Emad Shargi and Morah Tahbaz, who were both detained in 2018.

Namazi was arrested during a 2015 business trip and convicted of cooperating with a hostile government, meaning the U.S. The following year Iran released four American detainees as part of a prisoner swap with the U.S. (with another person released separately), but Namazi was not one of them. His own father, arrested in 2016 while trying to visit him, was allowed to leave the country for medical treatment last October.

Namazi feels he has been left behind, Jared Genser, the family's lawyer, told Morning Edition's Leila Fadel. He says Namazi's concerns are amplified after seeing the situation in Russia, where American detainee Paul Whelan is still being held despite the U.S. recently reaching a deal to release WNBA player Brittney Griner. (The Biden administration has said that efforts to free Whelan are ongoing).

Genser describes Namazi as "desperate, despondent, heartbroken and also angry" all at the same time.

"He has been given a series of promises over many years by multiple U.S. administrations — President Obama, President Trump, President Biden — that his case was a top priority and that they would get it resolved and they would be able to bring him home," he adds. "And it just simply hasn't happened."

While the family has met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Genser says, they haven't gotten an audience with Biden despite asking for one since he took office — something Namazi also mentioned in his letter.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement that the administration is aware of Namazi's hunger strike and letter to Biden, calling Iran's use of wrongful detentionas political leverage "outrageous" and reiterating that bringing its detained citizens home is a top priority for the U.S.

"Our thoughts are with him and his family, as we work ceaselessly to bring him along with fellow wrongfully detained U.S. citizens Emad Shargi and Morad Tabhaz home to their families and loved ones as soon as possible," Price added.

Genser says discussions are underway between the U.S. and Iran to resolve what he calls the current "hostage cases." And he acknowledges that while it's not an ideal time to be making deals with Iran (especially given Iran's crackdown on human rights protesters in recent months), there are calls Biden can and should be making — no matter how tough — to bring innocent civilians home.

"The one thing that I would say to President Biden is: You need to put aside any political considerations and the blowback of cutting a deal, which undoubtedly will result in criticism from many directions," Genser says. "And you have to do what's right. And you have to look to your own moral compass and understand the responsibility that you, as the former vice president under President Obama, has for having left Siamak behind seven years ago, having promised his family he'd be home within weeks."

Read more excerpts of Genser's conversation with Fadel below. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Interview highlights

On Namazi's experience in Evin prison, notorious for mistreatment of political prisoners

What I would say is that the first two years were literally like hell on earth. He was in the intelligence wing of the prison and was in solitary confinement, was subjected to daily interrogations, was repeatedly beaten and tased, was psychologically tortured on top of physical torture. He was told that his father had died of a heart attack and then it took a week until they told him that, "Sorry, just kidding. He didn't really die." He was also in ... a teeny room with a concrete floor and no bedding of any kind, not even a pillow.

... Once he was ultimately convicted and ... given a 10-year prison term, he was moved into the general ward of Evin prison where the conditions are better, but still not great. He shares a cell with multiple people. They have the ability to watch Iranian television, to get access to Iranian newspapers and to be with other prisoners as well. So it's less terrible than the first two years, which were extraordinarily horrific, but nonetheless he's seeing his life waste away one year at a time. He's still in his early 50s and wants to get married, have children and all that has been irrevocably changed.

On what the hunger strike looks like and aims to achieve

He is going to drink water to stay hydrated ... His goal is not to secure his freedom from doing a hunger strike, but rather to draw attention to what is happening. This is the first time he's done this in the seven-and-a-half years that he has been imprisoned. And he just felt that now was the right time to do it, with repeated promises by the Biden administration that they would find a way to negotiate his freedom and all of them having come to naught. As you can imagine, he just feels like people just keep telling him what he wants to hear but take no action.

On what he thinks Biden could do to secure Namazi's release

I think the bottom line is that he needs to do what's necessary to bring Siamak and the other American hostages home, and the administration would know much better than me what the options would be to do that ... There are a range of possibilities that could be there, which would include a prisoner swap or an unfreezing of some amount of Iranian funds and putting it into a humanitarian channel that could only be used strictly for humanitarian goods. These are the kinds of things that have been done in the past and certainly would be an option now.

The audio for this story was produced by Kaity Kline and edited by Simone Popperl.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Siamak Namazi is an Iranian American who has been imprisoned in Iran for more than seven years. He was arrested in 2015 during a trip to Iran. The following year, his father, Baquer, was also imprisoned while trying to visit his son. Bakr was released on medical grounds. In October, he was allowed to leave Iran, but Siamak remains behind bars. Jared Genser is the Namazi family's lawyer. He's released a letter that Siamak wrote to President Biden, saying he was beginning a seven-day hunger strike.

JARED GENSER: I think he is desperate, despondent, heartbroken and also angry kind of all at the same time. You know, he has been given a series of promises over many years by multiple U.S. administrations - President Obama, President Trump, President Biden - that his case was a top priority and that they would get it resolved, and they would be able to bring him home. And it just simply hasn't happened. And so he has gone on this seven-day hunger strike to mark 7 years since he was left behind. And he's written a letter to President Biden that was delivered to the office of the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, for the president, where he says he wants President Biden to spend one minute a day - that's all the time he's asking for - one minute a day over the next seven days simply just thinking about him and the plight of other American hostages and working on trying to finally bring them home.

FADEL: Do you have hope that anything will change? As you said, he's been, I think, in your words, left behind by now the three administrations.

GENSER: We know that there are discussions underway between the U.S. and Iran to try to resolve the current set of hostage cases. You know, at the end of day, we can't forget who's responsible for his detention. It's obviously, you know, the Iranian regime and not any U.S. government administration. But when you see things like Brittney Griner brought home but the American Paul Whelan left behind, as you might imagine, for Siamak, that really triggered a whole range of further fears that he might be left behind again.

FADEL: And obviously, you're referring to the basketball player Brittney Griner, who was imprisoned in Russia for months. And the Biden administration did negotiate her release. But a much longer term American who'd been in prison there didn't get to come home to his family. I did want to ask what it's been like for Siamak in prison. You said it's been very difficult.

GENSER: What I would say is that the first two years were literally like hell on earth. He was in the intelligence wing of the prison and was, you know, in solitary confinement, was subjected to daily interrogations, was repeatedly beaten and tased, was psychologically tortured on top of physical torture. He was told that his father had died of a heart attack. And then it took a week until they told him that, sorry, just kidding. He didn't really die. You know, he was also, you know, in a room, a teeny room with a concrete floor and no bedding of any kind, not even a pillow. You know, and this was two years of his time there.

Once he was ultimately convicted and given a bogus conviction for collaborating with an enemy state, referring to the United States, and given a 10-year prison term, he was moved into the general ward of Evin Prison, where the conditions are better but still not great. You know, he shares a cell with multiple people. They have the ability to watch Iranian television, to get access to Iranian newspapers and to be with other prisoners, as well. So it's less terrible than the first two years, which were extraordinarily horrific. But nonetheless, he's seeing his life waste away one year at a time.

FADEL: What does a seven-day hunger strike look like for your client?

GENSER: This is the first time he's done this in the 7 1/2 years that he has been imprisoned. And he just felt that now is the right time to do it with repeated promises by the Biden administration that they would find a way to negotiate his freedom. And all of them haven't come for - to naught. As you can imagine, he just feels like people just keep telling him what he wants to hear but take no action.

FADEL: And this is timed to the anniversary of the Iran deal?

GENSER: Monday was the seven-year anniversary of the Iranian nuclear deal.

FADEL: If President Biden were listening to this broadcast right now, what would be the one thing you would say to him?

GENSER: The one thing that I would say to President Biden is, you need to put aside any political considerations and the blowback of cutting a deal, which undoubtedly will result in criticism from many directions. And you have to do what's right. And you have to look to your own moral compass and understand the responsibility that you, as the former vice president under President Obama, has for having left Siamak back behind seven years ago, having promised his family he'd be home within weeks and where we are today. And so I would ask President Biden to make the tough call and to do what's necessary to bring Siamak Namazi and the other American hostages home.

FADEL: And I'm just curious what you think Biden can or will give up for your client.

GENSER: I think the bottom line is that he needs to do what's necessary to bring Siamak and the other American hostages home. And the administration would know much better than me what the options would be to do that. Nonetheless, I think prior deals suggest various potential ways forward. There are a range of possibilities that could be there, which would include prisoner swap or an unfreezing of some amount of Iranian funds and putting it into a humanitarian channel that could only be used strictly for humanitarian goods.

These are the kinds of things that have been done in the past and clearly would be an option now. I mean, at the end of the day, Iran wants to be paid for these hostages. I mean, they have a policy of taking foreigners as hostages as a key part of their own foreign policy. And it's a tough time to be making a deal with Iran on anything, obviously. But at the end of the day, President Biden's responsibility is to help American citizens in harm's way abroad when they've done nothing wrong.

FADEL: That was Jared Genser, a lawyer working with imprisoned Iranian American Siamak Namazi and his family. The State Department is aware of the letter and the hunger strike. In a statement, spokesperson Ned Price tells NPR that officials are working, quote, "ceaselessly" to bring Namazi home and other wrongfully detained U.S. citizens, as well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.