Last updated: 23 September, 2013

US-Iran prisoners appeal to Rowhani

Supporters of two US citizens jailed in Iran appealed for their freedom Monday as President Hassan Rowhani arrived for the UN General Assembly, with one handing him a letter.

Rowhani, seen as a moderate, is paying a closely watched visit to the annual United Nations meeting as he seeks to improve Iran’s relations with the West.

The wife of Saeed Abedini, a naturalized US citizen involved in underground churches in Iran, approached Rowhani as he checked in at his hotel, a support group said.

Naghmeh Abedini “respectfully introduced herself” and asked Rowhani in Farsi to free her husband, said the American Center for Law and Justice, a group supporting the family.

A member of Rowhani’s entourage accepted a letter that was written by her husband and addressed to the Iranian president asking for his release, the group said.

Separately, 64 members of the US House of Representatives took part in a campaign to free Amir Hekmati, a former Marine who is also imprisoned in Iran.

The lawmakers took pictures of themselves with signs seeking Hekmati’s release and posted them on social media with the hashtag #FreeAmir.

Representative Dan Kildee, who led the campaign, said he believed the Iranian government was responsive to social media.

Kildee told AFP the goal during Rowhani’s visit “is to show that Americans and Americans’ direct representatives are paying attention.

“We think that the release of Mr. Hekmati would be a tangible step in the right direction” for US-Iran relations, said Kildee, a Democrat whose Michigan district includes Hekmati’s home.

The White House has not ruled out a meeting between US President Barack Obama and Rowhani, who addresses the UN General Assembly on Tuesday and has vowed to ease mistrust over Iran’s nuclear program.

Ahead of his visit, Iran released 12 political prisoners but not Hekmati or Abedini.

Iranian authorities accused Hekmati of spying and initially sentenced him to death. His family says the former Marine was visiting his grandmother.

In a recent letter from prison, Hekmati said that Iranian authorities, who overturned his death sentence, were holding him in hopes of swapping him for Iranians held by the United States.

Abedini, who converted to Christianity from Islam, was sentenced to eight years in prison on security grounds for his role in underground churches.

Iran’s clerical regime tolerates several religious minority groups including Christians but does not accept conversion from Islam.