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‘An Act of State Terrorism’: U.S. Hostages Suffer in Iran as Families Cry for Help

Iran earned its state sponsor of terrorism designation through its support for Hezbollah, Hamas and other groups, as well as allowance of an al-Qaeda facilitation pipeline channeling funds and fighters to South Asia and Syria.

But the Islamic Republic has directly been inflicting its own brand of terror on several American families through its ongoing, brutal practice of hostage-taking.

This includes the longest-held hostage in U.S. history: Bob Levinson, who served five years with the DEA and 25 at the FBI before his retirement. March 9 marked 12 years since his disappearance on Iran’s Kish Island.

“The evidence is so conclusive that the United Nations released an opinion in 2016 holding Iran responsible for Bob’s continued deprivation of liberty. Yet, Iran has been allowed to feign ignorance over and over again with absolutely no consequences from the U.S.,” Bob’s wife, Christine, told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa and International Terrorism last month, just before Levinson’s 71st birthday. “…The Iranians still regularly point to a statement made in error by the White House several years ago that Bob was not in Iran. That was wrong, but the U.S. government gave Iran an excuse not to send Bob home.”

“And in January 2016, when other American hostages were released and Bob was left behind, the United States government let Iran get away with it,” she added. “My husband served this country tirelessly for decades. He deserves better from us and from our government.”

'An Act of State Terrorism': U.S. Hostages Suffer in Iran as Families Cry for Help Homeland Security Today
Nizar Zakka (Courtesy photo)

Iran’s hostage-taking terror also includes Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese-American and permanent U.S. resident who was invited by the Iranian government to speak at a conference on women’s entrepreneurship in September 2015 — a trip partly funded by the State Department — and was seized as he tried to fly home to D.C.

Zakka, a University of Texas graduate, is secretary-general of the Dupont Circle-based IJMA3 group, an Internet freedom and technology advocacy NGO. Iran sentenced him to 10 years in prison on espionage charges. Zakka just weathered his seventh hunger strike behind bars.

“Time and again our hopes that our father will be released have been shattered. My father has been subjected to physical and mental torture and ill treatment by his captors who continue to exert pressure on him to make false confessions to support his crimes,” his youngest son, Omar, told the House subcommittee. “Sometimes my father has been promised that if he confesses, he will be released. My father is a man of honor and integrity. He will not confess to a crime he has not committed.”

Omar Zakka declared that “my father’s kidnapping is an act of state terrorism.”

“Currently, my father is being held underground, sharing four crowded cells between 50 of them, about 17 men to each cell. There, in my father’s cell, it’s rank with the smell of sewage. It is infested with rats and bedbugs. There is no designated place for him to eat. My father spends 16 hours of each day and every day in a coffin-sized space where he sleeps and keeps all of his close clothes and a few of his possessions,” Omar continued. “They cannot see the sunlight or breathe fresh air at any time except for two hours a day during lunchtime. They have to choose to have lunch and miss the sun or to see the sun and miss lunch.”

'An Act of State Terrorism': U.S. Hostages Suffer in Iran as Families Cry for Help Homeland Security Today
Baquer and Siamak Namazi (Courtesy photo)

Siamak Namazi, a U.S. citizen and businessman, was seized in October 2015 on a visit to Tehran. His father, Baquer Namazi, also a U.S. citizen, was trying to secure his son’s release when he was seized in Tehran in February 2016. The pair were sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of “spying and cooperating with the U.S. government against Iran.” Baquer, 82, has been hospitalized eight times, has lost more than 20 pounds and has been diagnosed with epilepsy and 70 percent blockage of the arteries leading to his brain.

Siamak’s brother and Baquer’s son, Babak Namazi, told the subcommittee that their continued detention brings “utter desperation and disbelief” as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “has imposed on us a relentless and sustained campaign of cruelty, pain, suffering, lies, and horrors, which continue until today.”

“It must be emphasized that the situation for my family and especially my seriously ill father is critical and swiftly heading toward an irreversible tragedy unless something is done and done urgently,” he said.

Iran holds Princeton University doctoral student Xiyue Wang, who was arrested in August 2016 for scanning historical documents related to his Ph.D. research and sentenced to 10 years. The University of Washington graduate has a 6-year-old son, Shao, with his wife, Qu Hua, who has been laboring intensively for Xiyue’s release.

Qu has reported that her husband’s physical and mental health are rapidly deteriorating under the strain of his harsh prison conditions. The 38-year-old has developed arthritis in both of his knees, among other maladies.

Iran also seized art gallery owner Karan Vafadari in July 2016 by first detaining his Iranian wife at the airport and directing her to call and summon him there. They lobbed various vice charges at the Zoroastrian before he was sentenced to 27 years and 124 lashes for “collusion in plots against national security” and other charges. He said in a letter a year ago that the IRGC tried to force his wife “to say I was a member of the Mossad and the CIA… so they could hang me.”

'An Act of State Terrorism': U.S. Hostages Suffer in Iran as Families Cry for Help Homeland Security Today
Xiyue Wang with his wife and son (Courtesy photo)

In January 2018, Morad Tahbaz, a Connecticut conservationist, was arrested along with other current and former staffers of the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation. A Canadian among the arrested, Kavous Seyed-Emam, died in custody — 17 days into his interrogation and detention; Iran claims he committed suicide, which his family disputes. Iran claims the trap cameras used to film wildlife were spying on the country’s missile program.

And joining the roster of hostages is Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran detained in July and sentenced last month to a decade behind bars. “White was beaten, has no money to hire a lawyer, and still does not know if any charges are filed against him. White is a former cancer patient and his health is worsening,” Subcommittee Chairman Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) said.

Christine Levinson said at the House hearing that she wanted President Trump to meet with hostages’ families: “He doesn’t understand how difficult it has been for our family because he hasn’t talked to us,” she said. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted afterward that “we are determined to secure the release of all U.S. hostages and wrongful detainees, and will not rest until they are home.”

An attorney for one of the hostages’ families told HSToday that a State Department meeting was planned for today, with possibly Pompeo in attendance.

Deutch, along with subcommittee Ranking Member Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) and Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), introduced last month the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act that would direct an assessment of the cases of Americans held abroad and regular reports to Congress, require the appointment of a Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs with the rank of ambassador, establish an interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell with a full-time director and family engagement coordinator, establish a Hostage Response Group to identify and recommend hostage recovery options and strategies to the president through the National Security Council, and impose sanctions on hostage-takers.

“We need to see additional pressure specifically against the Iranian individuals and entities responsible… Iran has been taking hostages as a matter of policy, and we must force Iran to change behavior,” Wilson said. “We need to see an intense concerted effort from Congress and the administration to seek the release of our Americans who are being held in Iran.”

Baquer Namazi, a former UNICEF official, passed a message to his son Babak as Iranian officials were forcing the heart-surgery patient to return to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison: “While the pain of those dearest to me continue to hurt deeply, I am also sorry that with the help of all of you and other great humanitarians that I could not continue to serve our common cause of peace for children, especially the sorely troubled Middle East region. Elimination of poverty through people empowerment, combating child trafficking, and opening space to hear the voices of the poor. Sustaining these great causes would be the best work that can, God willing, be granted to this humble man.”

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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