Iran convicted two U.S. citizens of espionage. Their relatives are pressing Trump for help

Relatives of U.S. citizens jailed in Iran are trying to press the Trump administration to secure their release as worries grow over the health of an imprisoned father and son.

Baquer and Siamak Namazi, convicted of espionage in a secret trial six months ago, are being held in a section of Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, according to a petition their lawyer filed this week with the U.N.’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

The section of the prison is known “for the use of cruel and prolonged torture of political opponents of the government,” the petition by lawyer Jared Genser says.

Genser said in an interview that U.S. officials told him they would raise the issue of the Namazis with Iranian diplomats this week in Vienna. The Vienna meeting Tuesday to discuss implementation of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal was the first direct U.S.-Iran talks since President Trump’s inauguration.

Genser said he had urged U.S. officials to do more than condemn the detentions, as the Trump administration has done several times. Trump has left key State Department positions unfilled, including the special envoy for hostage affairs, a position the Obama administration created to lead U.S. efforts to bring home Americans held overseas.

“We want this issue raised not just as an expression of concern or condemnation,” Genser said. “We want an expression of willingness [from the Trump administration] to engage in continued bilateral discussions through appropriate channels to find a resolution for the American hostages.”

The State Department declined to discuss the Namazi matter publicly. Spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. calls “for the immediate release of all U.S. citizens unjustly detained in Iran so that they can return to their families.”

At least three U.S. citizens are jailed in Iran, including the Namazis, who were convicted of espionage in October and sentenced to 10 years in prison, part of a wave of dual citizens whom Iran arrested in 2015 and 2016.

In July, Karan Vafadari, a U.S. citizen who owns an art gallery in Tehran, was detained along with his wife, Afarin Niasari, a U.S. green card holder. Human rights groups say they were charged with violating Iran’s religious laws by hosting mixed-gender parties and serving alcohol at home.

In October, San Diego resident Gholamrez Reza Shahini was convicted of national security crimes and sentenced to 18 years in prison. According to an individual close to Shahini’s family, he was released eight weeks ago on $65,000 bond and is awaiting his next court appearance in Gorgan, in northeastern Iran.

The Trump administration has adopted an aggressive stance toward Iran, announcing this month that it would conduct a 90-day review of U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic and threatening to back out of the 2015 nuclear agreement, even though it says Iran is abiding by its terms.

The landmark deal saw Iran agree to end its uranium enrichment in exchange for an easing of economic sanctions, but Trump administration officials and many in Congress believe it was too soft on Tehran.

Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accused Iran of “alarming and ongoing provocations that export terror and violence,” and cited its detention of U.S. citizens and other foreigners “on false charges.”

Experts said that the issue of jailed Americans has long been a thorn in U.S.-Iran relations, but that the prisoners are used as a pawn by Iran’s ultraconservative “deep state” to extract concessions from foreign powers.

“American officials habitually discuss the issue with their Iranian counterparts on the sidelines of nuclear-related meetings, but the prisoners’ fate is not in the hands of foreign ministry officials,” said Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group.

The Namazis are believed to have been jailed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, a hard-line paramilitary organization that opposes the nuclear deal and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts to improve relations with the West.

Ahead of a closely watched presidential election May 19, in which Rouhani is seeking a second four-year term, Trump’s rhetoric is unlikely to change the prisoners’ status.

“The more hostile the Trump administration becomes toward Tehran, the higher the motivation of the Revolutionary Guards to keep the Namazis as hostages,” Vaez said. “This is regardless of the outcome of the presidential poll.”

As a candidate, Trump raised expectations that he would help bring jailed Americans home. After the Namazis were convicted in October, weeks before the election, Trump tweeted: “this doesn’t happen if I’m president!”

Babak Namazi, Siamak Namazi’s brother, and Genser are looking for Trump to live up to his words.

“If either Namazi were to die, it would be a disaster of monumental proportions for Trump,” Genser said. “He said he is a negotiator, and he made a commitment on Twitter.”

Babak Namazi this week traveled to Vienna to ask the U.S. delegation to seek his family members’ release, saying their rapidly deteriorating health means “time is running out.”

Baquer Namazi, 80, underwent triple bypass surgery prior to his arrest and suffers from arrhythmia. He was held in solitary confinement at one point and has lost 30 pounds since his arrest, according to Genser’s letter to the U.N.

Family members are worried that he isn’t receiving proper medication after he was hospitalized for several days on two occasions after his arrest.

Babak Namazi said his brother Siamak’s mental and physical health are declining. Prison guards have beaten and tased him throughout the 18 months he has been held, Genser wrote.

Siamak Namazi’s cell is dark and cold, and he is forced to sleep on a concrete floor, Babak Namazi said. He also has been subjected to long periods of solitary confinement.

He was imprisoned in October 2015, and four months later, his father was detained after coming to Iran to attempt to secure his release.

“Siamak feels he has nothing left to live for,” Babak Namazi told reporters in Vienna on Tuesday.

“I am counting on the president to take personal responsibility for the lives of my father and brother,” he said.

Etehad reported from Los Angeles and Bengali from Mumbai, India.

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

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