Tooraj Faridi liked to think of himself as a respectable businessman, a father of two and karate instructor at the local YMCA. All that was in jeopardy nine months ago when a SWAT team descended on his leafy suburban street of carefully tended brick ranch houses.
The predawn raid resulted in the arrest of Faridi, 46, vice president of Smart Power Systems Inc., a Houston-based microelectronics company that federal authorities said had violated U.S. restrictions on doing business with Iran.
Faridi's home and business were searched. Rumors began to spread among neighbors about the clean-cut family man with the square jaw and large brown eyes. Nearly 50 friends attended his first court appearance, where prosecutors told a judge that FBI wiretaps and email surveillance showed that Faridi's company had sold dangerous technology to Iran.
“They tried to make it seem like it was this big act of terrorism. They said he was an asset of the Iranian military,” Faridi’s attorney, Kent Schaffer, said of federal prosecutors.
Faridi, his uncle and another Iranian American business partner were among seven U.S. prisoners and criminal defendants pardoned over the weekend in exchange for the release of American detainees held in Iran.
Faridi, who had never gone to trial on the charges, worries now that he'll never get a chance to prove his innocence.
"He feels a little bit of regret that he didn’t have a chance to clear his name," Schaffer said. "There will always be people who assume there was something to it.”
Born in Tehran, Faridi has lived in Houston for about 15 years, becoming a U.S. citizen while working at the business started in 1984 by his uncle, an electrical engineer selling commercial-grade surge protectors.
His uncle also ran Faratel Corp., a Tehran-based company that prosecutors said was a "sister" company to Smart Power Systems.
According to the federal grand jury indictment in the case, Faratel designs and builds uninterruptible power supplies for several Iranian government agencies, including the Ministry of Defense and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
U.S. prosecutors alleged that the technology is used in a wide range of military systems, including surface-to-air and cruise missiles. Between 2010 and 2015, the procurement network in the U.S. allegedly shipped about $24 million worth of parts to Iran through Taiwan and Turkey, according to court records.
Payment from Iran was procured through "a variety of intricate illicit techniques," according to the indictment.
Faridi contended that although his company shipped parts to Faratel, he never dealt with the Iranian government or intentionally violated the U.S. sanctions.
“Originally when this case was filed, the government alleged what they were doing was a threat to national security because they alleged the parts they were shipping could be used with nuclear devices,” Schaffer said.
But he said the defense was able to discount that by the end of the first court hearing. "They had to admit the only connection my client had with the Iranian military was back when he lived in Tehran he served with the army and his assignment was he worked in the gymnasium," the lawyer said. "He was hardly a spy for the Iranian government.”
Faridi was initially released on $75,000 bond, but his uncle, Bahram Mechanic, 69, also of Houston, remained in detention, as did his business partner Khosrow Afghahi, 72, of Los Angeles. Both maintained that they, too, were innocent.
Mechanic became a U.S. citizen five years ago, and said he had been blacklisted from doing business with the Iranian government ever since. But he had a record: He had settled similar sanctions-related export violations in the 1990s after being sentenced to five years' probation for another criminal export conviction in the 1980s.
It would be at least a year before he and Afghahi stood trial. Though some of the government’s classified evidence was initially unsealed, in order for the trio’s attorneys to review all of it, they had to obtain security clearances. They applied, but as of last week, only one of 15 attorneys had been cleared.
The two men were desperate to return to their families.
Afghahi has heart and prostate disease. He had lived in Iran most of his life but spent the last year caring for his son, who was being treated for prostate disease at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Mechanic was coping with the aftereffects of bladder and stomach cancer now in remission, plus diabetes and heart problems. Unable to receive all of the medications he needed behind bars, he suffered an enlarged prostate that necessitated frequent nighttime trips to the bathroom, his attorney said.
But like the others, he refused to plead guilty. Mechanic said he had tried to comply with U.S. sanctions against Iran, and like his nephew, contended that he was guilty of nothing more than mistakes.
“The laws are very confusing; they change all the time. Mr. Mechanic has had lawyers over the years, but it’s very difficult to keep up with them,” attorney Joel Androphy said.
Federal authorities saw it as a serious breach. "The proliferation of sensitive U.S. technologies to Iran and the direct support to their military and weapons programs remains a clear threat to U.S. national security," Assistant FBI Director Randall Coleman said when the indictment was unsealed in April.
The businessmen-turned-defendants were waiting for the case to be resolved at trial when, two months ago, Mechanic was contacted by Fariborz Jahansoozan, an official at the Iranian interests section in Washington, Iran's de facto embassy.
Jahansoozan flew to Houston to meet with Mechanic at the federal detention center and asked whether he was interested in being part of a prisoner swap.
Mechanic wanted to know more: What would the deal require? Would the charges be dismissed? Would he have to return to Iran, or face other travel restrictions?
At the time, there were reports that the swap would include up to 19 people.
“It was like a lottery,” Androphy said.
He advised Mechanic to take the deal.
“We always felt he was innocent, but the problem is he’s 69 years old and in jail. We thought we could win the case in court, but there’s a prejudice against Iranians in the U.S., and you don’t know if you’re going to get a fair jury, even though he’s a U.S. citizen. Getting a resolution this way seemed a good alternative,” Androphy said.
When Jahansoozan returned to Houston to meet with Mechanic again on Jan. 7, he had news about the deal: “This is becoming a reality,” he told him.
The trio was sworn to secrecy, and didn’t know the conditions of the swap until last Wednesday, when federal prosecutors called and notified them of the pardons.
Mechanic was elated.
“It was important for him to be released, but it was more important to him that the president was saying you did not commit these crimes, that this was going to be acknowledged and nullified,” Androphy said.
He brought Mechanic a copy of the pardon on Friday, before President Obama signed it. At about 5:30 a.m. Saturday, the three men were assembled with two others also being freed and their attorneys in a room at the federal detention center in downtown Houston.
There, they waited for the president to sign the final documents.
But there were delays in the release of American prisoners, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, being held in Iran. By 8 p.m., the warden sent the attorneys home, promising to call them two hours ahead of the signing of the pardons -- calculated to coincide with when the freed U.S. prisoners cleared Iranian airspace.
The call came at 1 a.m. Sunday. A few hours later, the warden distributed pardons signed by Obama.
“It’s dramatic: The warden literally hands the pardon to Mr. Afghahi and says, ‘You are now free to leave,'” attorney David Gerger said, noting that after a day of “hopes and false starts,” the older man was “relieved” to rejoin his family.
By 4:30 a.m., all three men had been released.
Mechanic held a gathering at his home Monday night, attended by Afghahi, attorneys, friends and family. There, Mechanic shared Iranian pistachios; he wore street clothes and cologne for the first time in months. The optimism that had buoyed him during months in detention had paid off.
His nephew Faridi did not attend the party. Like his uncle, his lawyer said, he plans to stay in Houston, to help run the family business as he did before. But he is less optimistic. He knows his life has been forever changed.
“People are already starting to say, well, we know you got a pardon from the president, but we still don’t know if you’re guilty of what you’re accused of,” his attorney said.
“On the other hand, he no longer has to live under the stress of having to go to trial and potential incarceration,” Schaffer said. “He can go on with his life.”
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