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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

MSN News September 12, 2013

Americans held captive abroad accused of being 'spies'

By James Eng

Amir Hekmati, being held as a spy in Iran, is one of several Americans imprisoned in foreign countries for alleged crimes against the state.

A letter smuggled out of an Iranian jail has thrust refueled public attention on a former U.S. Marine imprisoned there as a U.S. spy and on the plight of other Americans held captive in foreign countries.

Amir Hekmati, a 29-year-old Iranian-American who was born in Arizona and grew up in Michigan, said in a letter addressed to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that he has been held for more than two years on false charges of being a spy for the CIA. He said a televised "confession" he made in December 2011 was "obtained by force, threats, miserable prison conditions, and prolonged periods of solitary confinement."

Hekmati's handwritten letter, dated Sept. 1, was smuggled out of prison and first published Wednesday by Britain's The Guardian newspaper.

Hekmati was taken into custody in August 2011 while visiting relatives in Iran. An Iranian court sentenced him to death in January 2012 after he confessed on Iran's state-run television to spying for Washington. That sentence was overturned by a higher court, and Hekmati is waiting for a retrial.

“It’s time for Amir to be released. It’s time for him to come home to Michigan, to his family. My brother has committed no crime. More than two years in detention, much of which was spent in solitary confinement, is far too long," Hekmati's sister, Sarah Hekmati, said in a statement distributed to MSN News and other media outlets on Wednesday.

"He has never been a spy for any country or entity or person. They have punished him enough. We hope Iran’s new President (Hasan) Rouhani and his new government recognize this point."


Hekmati is among several Americans being held against their will in foreign countries, including three in Iran.

A CIA spokesman declined comment on how many Americans were being held as "spies" in foreign countries.

John Pike, a leading expert on defense, space and intelligence policy and director of GlobalSecurity.org, said he doesn't know whether Americans are more likely than other nationalities to be accused of spying abroad.

"It's sufficiently rare that you wouldn't be able to say one way or the other," he said.

It's possible, he added, that more Americans are being held today than, say, during the Cold War due to sheer math.

"It's almost by definition the numbers would be higher today than they would have been back then because there are more Americans (today) and international travel is cheaper than it used to be," Pike told MSN News. "We have a couple of small enemies. Back then we had one big enemy."

Here's a brief look at some other American captives abroad:


Levinson, a retired FBI agent from Coral Springs, Fla., went missing during a business trip to Iran's Kish Island on March 9, 2007. He was working on behalf of several large corporations as a private investigator researching a cigarette smuggling case. Initially, the U.S. suspected that a terrorist group was behind the kidnapping. U.S. intelligence officials have indicated they now believe Iran is behind Levinson’s captivity.

Levinson would now be 65 years old. His family says he is the second-longest-held hostage in American history, after Terry Anderson, an Associated Press correspondent who was abducted and held for nearly seven years by Shiite Hezbollah militants in Lebanon before being released in December 1991.


Abedini, 33, An American Christian pastor from Boise, Idaho, was arrested during a trip to Iran in the summer of 2012. He was sentenced earlier this year to eight years in prison on charges of attempting to undermine state security. His supporters say his "crime" was attempting to share his Christian faith.


Gross, 64, is a U.S. government contractor serving a 15-year sentence for bringing banned communications equipment to Cuba. He was detained in 2009 while distributing computer equipment as part of a U.S. Agency for International Development program to increase access to the Internet on the island.

Gross received his first visit by American doctors in July, according to his attorney. Gross' family has said that his health is failing.


Bergdahl, 27, a U.S. Army sergeant from Hailey, Idaho, was captured by Taliban forces while fighting in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. He is believed to be the only U.S. soldier taken prisoner in the 13-year U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

Mullah Sangeen Zadran, a senior commander of the al-Qaida-linked Haqqani network who was purportedly involved in Bergdahl's kidnapping, was killed in a drone strike last week, according to media reports.


The 26-year-old U.S. military veteran and New York native was taken captive on June 20 country's volatile southeast by FARC rebels two days after arriving in Colombia as a tourist. The group said Sutay's capture was evidence of "the active participation on the ground of American military and mercenaries in counter-insurgency operations in which they appear under the euphemism of contractors.


Bae, a 45-year-old naturalized American citizen with family living in Washington state, was arrested in November 2012 while leading a group of tourists in the northeastern port city of Rason. Bae, described by relatives and friends as a devout Christian, was sentenced earlier this year to 15 years of hard labor for unspecified "hostile acts" against the state.

There was speculation former pro basketball star Dennis Rodman would try to win Bae's release during his second visit to North Korea this year. Rodman met with the reclusive country's leader Kim Jong-un last week, but left the country without Bae. "That's not my job to ask about Kenneth Bae. Ask Obama about that. Ask Hillary Clinton," Rodman told reporters.

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