New York – The families of people detained in Iran on false charges joined forces for the first time on Wednesday to call on world leaders meeting in New York to help bring their relatives home.
The wives, sisters and children of people held hostage by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards said the world must not stand back and allow Iran to imprison and torture people over no charges or false charges related to espionage.
The call came as a study published by TrustLaw, a unit of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, revealed a gap in international laws to protect citizens taken hostage by states in peacetime, with the situation more complex for those with dual citizenship.
Human Rights Watch researcher Tara Sepehri Far said there is a rising trend of people taken hostage in Iran and used as bargaining chips for political gains.
“I call on all world leaders gathered at the (United Nations General Assembly) for their attention and to remember all these names in horrible incarceration,” said Hua Qu, whose student husband Xiyue Wang has been jailed in Iran for two years.
“They are the sacrifices of the political situation.” Wang, a naturalized U.S. citizen from China, was arrested in August 2016 while doing dissertation research at archives in Iran. He was convicted of espionage and sentenced in April 2017.
“My husband is innocent,” said Qu.
Six families shared their experiences on trying to deal with a relative taken hostage in Iran, with diplomats often advising them to stay silent so as not to harm the chance of release.
Qu, whose 4-year-old son refuses to talk to his father on the phone but draws him in family pictures, said she stayed quiet for a year but with no result started to speak out.
Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American journalist detained in Iran for 18 months from 2014 while his Iranian wife Yeganeh Salehi was held for two-and-a-half months, said: “Be as vocal as you can”. His family fought loudly for him.
“It is incumbent on families and governments to take a loud, consistent, clear position to bring people home,” he said.
“Pushing for recognition by governments is a really key step. Once it does happen, they can’t take that back.” British Prime Minister Theresa May lobbied for release of detained British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe during a meeting on Tuesday with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the U.N. in New York, May’s office said.
Matthias Mitman of the US State Department said officials work as best they can to get people home but there was no “cookbook recipe” with all cases different.
Tehran has had no diplomatic relations with Washington since its 1979 Islamic Revolution, and ties have deteriorated anew since U.S. President Donald Trump took office in January 2017.
“Our objective is very clear, and it is to get your loved ones back to you,” Mitman said.
“Iran is taking these detainees or hostages because it is trying to achieve certain foreign policy objectives.” The families joining forces included Richard Ratcliffe, husband of Nazanin (who works for the Thomson Reuters Foundation) who has been imprisoned for two-and-a-half years, Nadim Zakka whose Lebanese-US father Nizar has been held for three years and Maryam Malekpour whose Iranian brother Saeed was taken 10 years ago on a trip back from Canada.
Sarah Levinson Moriarty said her father, Bob Levinson, was often described as “the longest-held hostage in US history”.
Levinson, a US Drug Enforcement Administration and Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, was taken hostage in 2007 and has not been in contact with his family since. He would now be 70.
“He’s missed three weddings, the birth of five grandchildren,” she said, adding that her family felt helpless after more than 11 years with no progress.
“We don’t know how to go forward from here.”