- Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, 28, convicted by Iran’s Revolutionary Court
- Family says he was on his first ever visit to Iran to see elderly relatives
- ‘We pray that Iran will show compassion and not murder our son’
- U.S. State Department demands his immediate release
- Tehran also claims to have ‘uncovered U.S.-linked spy network’
- Uranium enrichment starts at underground site protected from air strikes
- Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta says move ‘crosses a red line’The White House strongly condemned Iran last night for sentencing a U.S. citizen to death for spying.
The Iranians accused Arizona-born Amir Mirzai Hekmati, a former Marine, of being an undercover agent for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Calling the spy claim a lie, the U.S. demanded that Iran release Mr Hekmati without delay.
U.S. officials believe Tehran is manipulating an innocent man to inflame tensions with the West over its nuclear programme.
Staring straight ahead, a grim-faced Amir Mirzaei Hekmati (left) listens intently as he is sentenced to death by an Iranian court for spying. His demeanour contrasts markedly with this picture (right, released by his family) of him smiling as has a cup of coffee back home in the U.S.
This image from Iranian TV claims to show Mr Hekmati wearing a headscarf. Authorities there claim he received special training before heading to Iran for ‘an intelligence mission’
Mr Hekmati, 28, was found guilty of ‘co–operating with a hostile nation…and trying to implicate Iran in terrorism’.
He was arrested several months ago but his capture was only confirmed by Iran in December after a single, closed-court trial hearing during which the prosecution mainly relied on a televised ‘confession’.
Tehran claimed Mr Hekmati worked for the U.S. military and intelligence services in Iraq and Afghanistan before being sent to Iran on a mission to feed misinformation to Iranian agents.
His mother, Behnaz, and father, Ali, said they were ‘shocked and terrified’ by the death sentence after a process ‘that was neither transparent nor fair’.
His family insists he had travelled to the country to visit his Iranian grandmothers and was not a spy. Mr Hekmati has 20 days to appeal.
The sentence was handed down on the same day that the country’s security forces claimed to have smashed a U.S. spy network.
In a further development, it was revealed that Iran has started uranium enrichment at a site deep under a mountain near the Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Qom.
Uranium enrichment in the Fordow bunker is probably the single most controversial part of Iran’s nuclear programme, which Tehran says is peaceful but the West says is aimed at building an atomic bomb.
The long-simmering nuclear dispute has come to a boil in recent weeks, with the West imposing new sanctions that are having a real impact on Iran’s economy, and Tehran responding with threats to international shipping that rattled oil markets.
There had been hopes in some quarters that relations might improve between the U.S. and Iran after the U.S. Navy rescued 13 Iranian fishermen held by Somali pirates.
The U.S. State Department angrily responded that Mr Hekmati had been falsely accused and demanded his immediate release.
In this undated image Mr Hekmati (left) stands with U.S. soldiers. Fluent in Farsi, he served in the U.S. marines from 2001 to 2005
The 28-year-old former military translator, who has 20 days to appeal, was born in Arizona and graduated from a high school in Michigan. His family is of Iranian origin. He was arrested weeks into his first trip into the country when he was spending time with his Iranian grandmothers.
He is said to have received special training and served at U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan before heading to Iran for ‘an intelligence mission’.
He was filmed in December ‘confessing’ to his crimes on Iranian state television, months after being allegedly arrested in August. But his father, a professor at a community college in Flint, Michigan, said his son was not a CIA spy and was simply visiting family when arrested.
His mother Behnaz Hekmati said she and her husband Ali are ‘shocked and terrified’ that their son has been sentenced to death. She said the verdict is ‘the result of a process that was neither transparent nor fair’.
Since leaving the military, Mr Hekmati worked as a linguistic consultant for defence firms
She added that her son did not engage in any acts of spying, or ‘ “fighting against God” as the convicting judge has claimed in his sentence. Amir is not a criminal. His very life is being exploited for political gain’.
‘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,’ the family statement said. ‘We pray that Iran will show compassion and not murder our son, Amir, a natural born American citizen, who was visiting Iran and his relatives for the first time.’
The family has also complained about the legal system in Iran. ‘We have struggled to provide Amir with an attorney in Iran.
‘We have sought to hire at least 10 different attorneys to no avail. His only advocate in Iran was a government-appointed lawyer who he met on the first day of his trial.’
News of the death sentence comes on the same day Iran said it had broken up a ‘U.S.-linked spy network’ that planned to ‘fuel unrest’ ahead of the March parliamentary election, the first nationwide vote since the country’s 2009 disputed presidential vote that kept controversial Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in power.
Strategic positioning: The Iranian nuclear enrichment site is located in a bunker dug deep into a mountain
Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves to the crowds as he arrives in Venezuela fro a visit to Hugo Chavez . From there he will travel to Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador. The aim of the tour is to shore up support from the region’s leftist leaders, as tough new sanctions aim to isolate Iran and target its vital oil exports
Intelligence Minister Haydar Moslehi said: ‘The detained spies were in contact with foreign countries through cyberspace.’ But he did not say how many had been detained or their nationalities.
Iran, which often accuses its foes of trying to destabilise its Islamic system, said in May it had arrested 30 people on suspicion of spying for the United States and later 15 people were indicted for spying for Washington and Israel.
Also causing problems is Iran’s determination to stick to its nuclear course despite mounting international pressure and sharpened rhetoric. News of is plan to begin uranium enrichment provoked an angry response from Leon Panetta. ‘And our red line to Iran is do not develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us,’ he said Sunday.
Mr Hekmati was shown previously on Iranian TV saying he entered the U.S. Army after finishing high school in 2001 and received military and intelligence training
Protest: Mr Hekmati’s family say he is innocent and that he was forced to make his taped confession (right)
WORK ON NUCLEAR BOMB ‘BEGINS’
Iran has started uranium enrichment at an underground site protected from possible airstrikes as fears grow that it is building a nuclear bomb.
Tehran began injecting uranium gas into sophisticated centrifuges at the Fordo facility near Qom ‘amid heightened foreign enemy threats’, the hardline Iranian newspaper Kayhan reported yesterday.
Iran already has a uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, where 8,000 centrifuges are operating. The ones in Fordo, however, are reportedly more efficient, and better shielded.
Nuclear chief Fereidoun Abbasi would admit only that the country is ‘soon’ to begin enrichment – which can produce both nuclear fuel and fissile warhead material.
That said, President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad (pictured) makes no secret that nuclear capabilities are soemthing the country wants.
Leon Panetta, U.S. Defence Secretary, said nuclear bomb fears were premature and called for diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran.
He said that the news that the country was ‘trying to develop nuclear capability’ was not welcomed.
‘That’s what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is do not develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us,’ Mr Panetta said Sunday.
Iran’s refusal to halt nuclear enrichment – which can have both military and civilian purposes – has drawn four rounds of U.N. sanctions since 2006 and separate U.S. and European steps.
Iran has threatened to close Gulf oil shipping lanes through the Strait of Hormuz that are vital to the global economy if the West carries out mooted plans to bar Iranian crude exports, or if Iranian nuclear sites came under military attack.
Mr Panetta responded in kind, saying that if it should come to that, the U.S. ‘would take action and reopen the strait’.
Though relations between the two countries have been tense for decades, they became even more fraught after the June 2009 presidential election, which was followed by eight months of anti-government street protests. Iranian authorities accused Washington and its allies of supporting the opposition unrest to overthrow Tehran’s clerical establishment.
The few details that the Iranians have divulged about the most recent case show that they deeply fear the idea of American intrusion.
The Iranian court convicted Mr Hekmati of working with a hostile country, belonging to the CIA and trying to accuse Iran of involvement in terrorism.
In its ruling, a branch of Tehran Revolutionary Court described Mr Hekmati as a mohareb, an Islamic term that means a fighter against God, and a mofsed, or one who spreads corruption on earth. Both terms appear frequently in Iranian court rulings.
In a closed court hearing in late December, the prosecution asked for the death sentence for Mr Hekmati. The U.S. government has called on Iranian authorities to grant Swiss diplomats access to Mr Hekmati in prison.
The Swiss government represents U.S. interests in Iran because the two countries do not have diplomatic relations. Mr Hekmati is a dual U.S.-Iranian national. Iran considers him an Iranian since the country’s law does not recognise dual citizenship.
Similar cases against Americans accused of spying have heightened tensions throughout a years-long stand-off over Iran’s nuclear ambition.
Iran arrested three Americans in July 2009 along the border with Iraq and accused them of espionage, though the Americans said they were just hiking in the scenic and relatively peaceful Kurdish region of northern Iraq. They were eventually released and returned to the United States.
Not the first time: Iran has previously accused Americans of being spies, like these three hikers (L-R) Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd, and Josh Fattal who were imprisoned after claiming their innocence
Iran’s state TV broadcast video of Mr Hektami delivering a purported confession in which he said he was part of a plot to infiltrate Iran’s Intelligence Ministry.
Mr Hekmati’s case made international news on December 18, Iran’s state TV broadcast video of him delivering a purported confession in which he said he was part of a plot to infiltrate Iran’s Intelligence Ministry.
‘It was their [the CIA’s] plan to first burn some useful information, give it to them [the Iranians] and let Iran’s Intelligence Ministry think that this is good material,’ Mr Hekmati said in the video.
In a statement released the same day, the Intelligence Ministry said its agents identified Mr Hekmati before his arrival in Iran, at Bagram Air Field in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Bagram is the main base for American and other international forces outside Kabul, the Afghan capital. It is not clear exactly when he was arrested. Iranian news reports have said he was detained in late August or early September.
Mr Hekmati’s father, Ali, said in a December interview that his son was a former Arabic translator in the U.S. Marines who entered Iran about four months earlier to visit his grandmothers.
‘My son is no spy. He is innocent. He’s a good fellow, a good citizen, a good man. These are all unfounded allegations and a bunch of lies,’ Ali has told ABC News.
At the time, he was working in Qatar as a contractor for a company ‘that served the Marines’, his father said, without providing more specific details.
His family has been left without answers for months, and though the Iranian government has not given many details about the nature of his arrest, Mr Hekmati’s family have been trying to put the pieces together.
‘The Iranian government detained Amir on August 29, 2011 without any charges, and urged our family to remain silent with the promise of an eventual release,’ they said in a statement.
- Foreign Secretary William Hague has criticised Iran’s decision to switch on a uranium enrichment plant near the Muslim holy city of Qom. He said: ‘This is a provocative act which further undermines Iran’s claims that its [nuclear] programme is entirely civilian in nature.’