Three of the four Americans released from Tehran’s Evin Prison on Saturday as part of an exchange were all men with dual citizenship who traveled to Iran for deeply personal reasons.
Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, 32, a former U.S. Marine from Flint, Michigan, was visiting an ailing grandmother. Saeed Abedini, 35, an evangelical pastor from Boise, Idaho, was working on building an orphanage with his wife. And Jason Rezaian, 39, a Washington Post reporter raised in Marin County, California, was writing about the rapid changes in his father’s homeland, including a surprising new enthusiasm for baseball.
The stories of their imprisonment – which collectively spanned about nine years and nine months – captured the public’s attention around the world and created tremendous outrage against Iran.
Little is known about the fourth American, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, whose detention had not been previously publicized. Iranian state television described him as a businessman.
On Saturday, the men’s families expressed their gratitude to the Obama administration for working on the deal, but their statements appeared to be tempered by anxiety and mistrust of the Iranian government.
“We thank everyone for your thoughts during this time,” Hekmati’s family said. But, they cautioned, “There are still many unknowns. At this point, we are hoping and praying for Amir’s long-awaited return.”
Hekmati is the longest-held American prisoner confirmed to have been held by Iran.
Arrested in August 2011, he was accused of being a CIA spy. Both he and the U.S. government have denied the charges and maintained his innocence. He was initially convicted of espionage and sentenced to death, but a higher court overturned that ruling. He was then charged with “cooperating with hostile governments” and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Hekmati’s family has accused Iran of subjecting him to physical and mental torture and solitary confinement in a tiny cell. In December he launched a hunger strike to protest his captivity and lost weight and was having trouble breathing. Earlier this month, he was allowed to receive medical treatment at a hospital outside the prison for swelling in his neck and face – a concession that was taken as a sign that he might be considered for release.
In a letter dictated to his mother over the phone while in prison, Hekmati described himself as a geopolitical pawn and vowed never to return to Iran.
“It has become very clear to me that those responsible view Iranian Americans not as citizens or even human beings but as bargaining chips and tools for propaganda,” he said.
Abedini, a convert from Islam to Christianity, was detained in July 2012 for organizing home churches. He was sentenced to eight years in prison. His case was the most high-profile religious persecution for Christians in recent years, regularly mentioned by evangelical pastors in pulpits across the country.
His wife, Naghmeh Abedini, who grew up in Boise and lives there with the couple’s two children – Rebekka, 9, and Jacob, 7 – said Saturday that the deal “has been an answer to prayer.”
In an interview, she recounted how she woke her two children at 7:30 a.m. to tell them of the news that their father had been released.
“They were shocked,” she said. “You can probably hear them now, jumping up and down, asking ‘When are we going to see him?’ It’s been a time of rejoicing.”
Naghmeh Abedini has been a high-profile advocate for her husband, posting updates on social media and speaking at Christian conferences across the country.
Born and raised in Iran, Abedini became a U.S. citizen in 2010 but returned to Iran regularly. His wife said that he had been beaten and interrogated when he was first imprisoned and suffered internal bleeding but she does not know his current physical condition. She said that once he leaves Iranian soil, they will discuss whether she will fly and meet him somewhere or if they will meet when he returns to the United States.
Naghmeh Abedini said it’s unclear whether her husband will continue to be a pastor, though it’s always been “his heart.”
“I think he would have to deal with a lot of issues,” she said. “There will need to be a time of healing for him and his family.”
A fifth American, identified as Matt Trevithick, was also released Saturday but was not part of the exchange. Trevithick’s parents said in a statement that he had been held for 40 days in Evin Prison. They did not describe any formal charges and referred to his captivity as a “detention.”
Reached by phone, his sister said she wasn’t able to offer any more comments beyond that the family is “profoundly grateful to all those who worked for his release and are happy for all the families whose loved ones are also heading home.”
Trevithick, who recently turned 30 and is from Hingham, Mass., near Boston, went to Iran in September for a four-month intensive-language program at a language center affiliated with Tehran University in order to work on his fluency in Dari, a language closely related to Farsi.