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WASHINGTON – Nagmeh Abedini, the wife of the America pastor who for being a Christian has been kept in the most notorious of Iran’s prisons for more than a year now, today told a congressional hearing that Islamists in Iran trumped up a charge against him.
The House Joint Subcommittee on the Middle East and Human Rights heard testimony on the ongoing imprisonment of Saeed Abedini, who first was held in Tehran’s lethal Evin Prison and later was transferred to an even worse location – the 22,000-inmate Rajai Shahr, home to drug dealers, murderers and rapists.
“He was working in Iran under a government approved building plan. When he was arrested in 2012 – and he’s been in Iranian prisons for 444 days – he was working on a government approved orphanage,” she testified.
“The claim that he was undermining national security and that he was starting more house churches is unbelievable. It’s unbelievable that they would consider that peaceful gatherings of Christians were undermining national security or an act of war,” she said.
Nagmeh Abedini explained how her husband’s trial violated even Iranian law.
“They say he threatens national security. His trial was not public and he was barred from even being a part of the second part of the trial. He was denied access to legal counsel and he’s being denied medical care,” she said.
The committee hearing was chaired by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who said, “As we speak, American pastor Saeed Abedini remains in prison, surrounded by violent criminals who are threatening his life.”
He said the American pastor was in Iran doing his orphanage work with the consent and approval of the Iranian government.
“Pastor Abedini is an American citizen, but he was told he could re-enter Iran to carry on his relief work. The Iranian government offered him safe entry. He accepted the Iranian government’s offer for safe passage, but the Iranian government hasn’t kept its promise,” Smith said.
Smith said the Iranians know they have an important prisoner because “the fact that they moved him to the more dangerous prison shows that they knew he would be an important factor in the negotiations. He’s an American citizen and he remains in an absolute hell-hole in Iran. We can’t waste this opportunity.”
The American Center for Law and Justice has been working on behalf of Abedini, and Executive Director Jordan Sekulow said U.S. officials first said they had no relationship with Iran so they couldn’t do anything.
But he said now the U.S. relationship with Iran has changed and that the U. S. is talking to Iranians.
But still, Sekulow said, the answers aren’t lining up.
“Mrs. Abedini was told by the State Department that the State Department couldn’t really do anything. Then one administration official says that Pastor Abedini’s case is being raised on the fringes. Then Secretary of State John Kerry said at the hearing on Tuesday that Pastor Abedini was not a part of the negotiations because mentioning him might be dangerous,” Sekulow said.
“The State Department said his case was being raised, then they said it wasn’t.
One official said it was, one said no. We don’t know which one to believe,” Sekulow said.
He warned the pastor is in real danger.
“Rajai Shahr is where the real criminals are. Drug dealers, murderers, rapists. It’s also overcrowded, housing 22,000 prisoners. To say that it’s inhumane is a gross understatement.
“Then to see that the pastor does not have backing of his own government. The State Department excused the lack of emphasis because we had no diplomatic relations. Now the two sides have talked; they can’t say that any more,” Sekulow said.
“It’s essential that this committee accept Secretary Kerry’s offer to hold a classified briefing. The ACLJ will even offer questions that need to be asked,” Sekulow said.
That was too much for Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., who accused advocates for the pastor of being partisan.
He said the Obama administration is, in fact, committed to freeing the pastor.
“Absolutely, on every occasion, we must do everything we can to make the human rights issue paramount. However, I don’t think this administration has wavered in its commitment to achieving the release of Pastor Abedini and I think it only hurts the administration’s position on negotiations if this issue becomes a partisan attack on the administration,” Deutch said.
“Our goal, in addition to bringing home those who have been persecuted, is to elevate human rights,” Deutch said. “But as we strive to elevate human rights, I hate to see the effort on human rights turn out to be an attack on the administration.
“Yes, the administration needs to be pushed to make sure human rights take center stage every day. [But] it becomes more difficult to make it the focus if it appears to be somehow a political cause,” Deutch said.
Brushing aside criticism, Nagmeh Abedini explained how difficult it has been on her family.
“As I took the kids for their first day of school, I could see their eyes. It was painful for them on their first day of school this year. It was painful that their daddy was missing.
“I watch my seven- and five-year-olds cry themselves to sleep. He’s been missing for 444 days and he wrote a letter to my daughter on her seventh birthday. In the letter he said, ‘It’s so hard and so heartbreaking to see pictures of my children and I can’t see them grow. I’m here to help children who don’t have daddies and mommies’ he wrote to our daughter,” she said.
“Saeed is a living and breathing soul. Saeed, we want him returned alive and well. All Americans should know that our government will take steps to ensure our basic human rights,” she said.
She warned the outcome of her husband’s case will have a ripple effect.
“Iran’s treatment of Saeed isn’t about one American citizen. It’s an experiment to test how serious are we. How strong is our president? How serious is he about our national security? How strong will his steps be to protect American citizens? Iran isn’t the only country watching how we act in this issue. Saeed Abedini is a sign of the strength of our government,” Nagmeh said.
“Please don’t let this stay on the margin. Please don’t let this go by the wayside. If we do not speak out, if we don’t speak out on human rights, we’re sending the wrong message. Especially in Middle East, we’re showing where we put our values. It’s very dangerous; the world is watching to see where we stand. Leaving it at the margins is sending a very dangerous message to the world,” she said.
“It is a joyful time of year, but it’s painful to find that we’re coming to another Christmas season without Saeed. I not only pray for the release of my husband, but that the government will realize how far it has fallen in its authority around the world,” she said.
U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Vice Chair Katrina Lantos Swett said the problem is the Islamist regime in Iran.
“Any sect that departs from Shia Islam is considered an enemy of the state and is
a target for abuse. The number of Christians and Bahais tortured and imprisoned since President Rouhani’s term began has increased. Since then, human rights conditions have grown worse, more than any time since the Iranian revolution in 1979,” Swett said.
Swett, the daughter of Tom Lantos, the only Nazi Holocaust survivor to ever be elected to Congress, said that minorities are held in contempt by the Iranian government.
“Bahais continue to suffer. Christians also suffer, particularly Protestant Christians who make up less than one percent of the population. Why do they consider them such a threat? The courts use charges against them that label their activities as political and threats against the government,” Swett said.
About Abedini, she said his treatment has been “an outrageous violation of human rights.”
“His only crime was helping work for an orphanage. He spent weeks in solitary confinement while in Evin Prison, now he’s in Rajai Shahr, which is known for harsh and unsanitary conditions.”
Swett says the Congress should stay active in the fight to gain the pastor’s release.
“Iran has been labeled a Country of Particular Concern. Congress should pass a resolution for religious freedom. The U.S. must call for release of all prisoners of conscience. These are flesh and blood people suffering for religious persecution.
“Further we need to bar Iranians from entering country and re-freeze their assets. If those in prison ever needed a voice form Congress, it is now. It’s time to speak out against Iran’s war on its own people,” Swett said.