Sarah Hekmati, left, is working to raise awareness in Washington about her brother and former Marine sergeant, Amir, right, being held in an Iranian prison. (Courtesy of FreeAmir.org)
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Amir Hekmati (Courtesy of FreeAmir.org)
Sarah Hekmati describes her younger brother like any former Marine — he runs 20 miles each week, practices martial arts and likes to travel, which is why she said knowing he has been locked up in an Iranian prison for nearly two years has been so difficult.
Amir Hekmati served as a Marine infantry rifleman for four years. Sarah said Amir, who was raised in Michigan, joined looking for the structure and discipline he saw in the Corps. They watched him transform from a young, rambunctious teenager into a proud Marine, she said.
“His license plate said ‘Marine’ and in almost every picture we have of him he’s wearing a Marine Corps T-shirt.”
Amir deployed to Iraq in 2003 and made use of his knowledge of Arabic and Farsi there. When he got out of the Corps as a sergeant, he continued using his language skills and launched his own linguistics consulting service. He was enrolled to start classes to study economics at the University of Michigan in the fall of 2011 when he decided to first take a trip to Iran to visit family there, Sarah said.
But within weeks, Amir was arrested, interrogated and imprisoned. He’s been held ever since on the allegation that he was there to spy for the CIA. His family says Amir is innocent, coerced into giving a video confession that aired on Iranian TV, which resulted in the former Marine being sentenced to death.
That sentence was since overturned on appeal, and now Sarah, a school counselor and mother of Amir’s niece and nephew, is busy visiting with leaders in Washington to help get him released.
And time, she said, is no longer on their side.
“Our dad was diagnosed with brain cancer in September,” she said. “We don’t know what my father’s fate is, so for us to be patient and diplomatically quiet is not in our hands anymore. We don’t have that luxury.”
The family has had little to no contact with Amir since he was arrested. Since the U.S. hasn’t had relations with Iran for decades, most of what they learn about his case is through a Swiss ambassador. He was held in solitary confinement for 16 months, Sarah said, and they had to figure out how to tell him about their dad’s diagnosis.
Eventually they were able to exchange letters with Amir, who is now 29. Sarah said despite being imprisoned, his words showed that he was more concerned about his dad’s health than he was himself.
“That just brought us to tears,” she said. “This poor kid has been in solitary for 16 months and he’s still saying, ‘Dad, don’t worry about me, just take care of yourself.’ ”
Amir was always family-oriented, Sarah said, and the Corps amplified his desire to put others ahead of himself. Now, years after he left the Corps, the family hears from other Marines — some who know Amir and some who don’t — who just want to help.
“I’ve had such an immense response from all of my brother’s military buddies,” she said. “All the ‘Free Amir’ bumper stickers and T-shirts were designed by the guys he served with.”
One Marine sent a letter Sarah hasn’t been able to get to Amir to help raise his spirits. She said he wrote he had faith in Amir because he was a Marine. Another former Marine stood outside the White House for days to raise awareness of Amir’s imprisonment.
“He just wanted to do a vigil demonstration and carried a sign and was out there for hours,” Sarah said. “I wanted him to reschedule one day because it was going to snow, and the Marine in him said, ‘No, I don’t care. I’ll stand out in the snow.’ He was just really committed to making a point.”
Sarah said she wants her brother to keep hope, and know people are standing up to help free him. Marines who want to help can visit FreeAmir.org.