Filmmaker Held in Iraq to Be Freed

Times Staff Writer

The family of Los Angeles filmmaker Cyrus Kar said Saturday that State Department officials had told them he would be released within a few days after having been imprisoned in Iraq by the U.S. military since mid-May, when a common component for explosives was found in the cab in which he was riding.

“I am so excited, I couldn’t believe my ears,” Los Feliz resident Parvin Modarress, Kar’s aunt, said in an interview.

On Tuesday, Modarress and her daughter Shahrzad Folger expressed fear that they might never again see Kar, who was born in Iran, came to the United States as a boy, served three years in the Navy and became a citizen 20 years ago.


He was taken into custody May 17 soon after he arrived in Baghdad to continue making a documentary film about Cyrus the Great -- the king of Persia 500 years before the birth of Christ -- who is believed to have written the first charter of human rights known to mankind.

Pentagon officials said last week that the taxi Kar was in was stopped at a vehicle checkpoint, where Iraqi soldiers found a number of washing machine timers that could be used as components in improvised explosive devices. They turned him over to the U.S. military, the Pentagon said.

Modarress said she had been told by Los Angeles FBI Agent John D. King, who helped investigate the case, that just one timer had been found in the cab and that the driver had said he “had picked it up from a repair shop as a favor for a friend.”

On June 14, Modarress said, King returned Kar’s possessions that had been seized in a search of his Los Feliz apartment. She said the FBI agent told her that Kar’s story about his film project had “checked out” and that he and his cameraman, who had also been in the cab, had been “cleared” and should be released soon.

Frustrated that the government continued to hold Kar, Modarress and Folger filed a lawsuit Wednesday in federal court in Washington, contending that their relative was being held in violation of the U.S. Constitution and should be released immediately.

Modarress said she last talked to Kar on June 28 in a 10-minute phone call from Camp Cropper, which is near Baghdad International Airport and is considered the highest-security U.S. military prison in Iraq. She said he was growing increasingly frustrated and feared that he would not be able to call again for a month.


On Saturday morning, Modarress said that her phone rang at 8:11 and that the caller, who described herself as from the American Embassy in Iraq, said she had information about Kar.

“I was a little worried,” Modarress said. “Normally when the embassy calls you, it is something bad.” But this time it was good news.

Modarress said State Department Consular Officer Sara Francia told her that Kar “is in good health” and would be released “in a couple of days” with his cameraman, Farshid Faraji, an Iranian citizen. The officer also told her, “We need you to wire some money” for Kar, Modarress said.

Francia also sent an e-mail to Modarress saying State Department officials “expect that [Kar] may be released very soon.” The e-mail provided detailed instructions on how to wire money to Kar.

“We will provide any assistance that is within our authority to provide. I am ccing the other consular officers who provide American citizen services in Iraq,” Francia said in the e-mail, a copy of which was provided to The Times by Mark D. Rosenbaum, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which is representing Kar’s family in the lawsuit.

Rosenbaum said he was driving to his office Saturday morning to prepare for a federal court hearing in the case that had been scheduled for noon Monday in Washington, when Modarress called him with the news. He and co-counsel Ranjana Natarajan immediately called Francia to confirm what Modarress had told him, Rosenbaum said.


“We’re thrilled,” he said, adding that the family expected to talk to Kar within 24 hours and hoped to get a fuller explanation of what happened. Both Rosenbaum and Modarress said they had not been told anything Saturday about what led U.S. officials to decide to release Kar now.

Last week, a Pentagon official told The Times that a hearing would be held in Iraq to determine whether Kar was “a security threat, involved in the insurgency, has committed a crime or is found innocent after a thorough investigation.”

The official, speaking on condition that he not be identified, confirmed that Kar had not been charged with a crime, but said “circumstances were such to raise the level of suspicion and warrant [Kar’s] questioning and detention.” He said he had no idea when the hearing would be held.

After stories about Kar’s situation appeared Wednesday in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, Pentagon officials said there were five U.S. citizens being held in Iraq. A Pentagon spokesman declined to provide their names but said all held dual citizenships.

He said three were Iraqi Americans: one arrested for reportedly engaging in “suspicious activities,” another held for alleged involvement in a kidnapping and the third for reputedly having knowledge of planning associated with attacks on coalition forces. The fourth captive was said to be a Jordanian American being held on suspicion of belonging to a group headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, believed to be Al Qaeda’s frontman in Iraq.

On Saturday, a Pentagon spokesman in Baghdad said she had no information on the latest developments. Francia of the State Department said she could make no comment, although she acknowledged talking to Kar’s lawyers in Los Angeles.


Rosenbaum said he was pleased that Kar would be freed soon, but added, “It shouldn’t take eight lawyers working around the clock and filing a federal habeas corpus petition to get a U.S. citizen released who is a Navy veteran and been cleared by the FBI, but has been held more than 50 days just because he stepped into the wrong cab.”

The ACLU suit contended that Kar had been “imprisoned by the United States military in Iraq without the slightest hint of legal authority. His arbitrary military detention is unaccompanied by any charge, any warrant, any writ or any process. The most elemental legal principles by which we govern ourselves cannot countenance the lawless detention without justification of a United States citizen by his own government.”

The lawsuit contains a sworn declaration from David Stronach, professor of Near Eastern Archeology at UC Berkeley, who has consulted with Kar on his film. The statement tells why Kar felt he had to go to Iraq to finish the project.

Stronach said Cyrus the Great was “mentioned many times in the Bible, not least because he liberated the captive Jewish community in Babylon -- an event that allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem, rebuild the temple and, arguably, provide the conditions that led to the birth of Christianity.”

“It is impossible to tell the story of Cyrus without bringing in the subject of Babylon, his last and greatest conquest, and one which had exceptional consequences,” Stronach added. “It is therefore unsurprising to me that Cyrus Kar thought it essential to go to Babylon -- in present-day Iraq -- to finish filming his documentary.”

After visiting his mother in Iran, Kar, 44, had gone to Baghdad as part of a three-year endeavor to make his documentary. He had previously filmed in Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan and Turkey and wanted to get footage in Babylon, according to people who have worked with him on the film. This is his first movie project.


Kar has lived in the United States since he was 9 and served in the Navy after finishing high school. He earned a degree in marketing from San Jose State before working in the Silicon Valley during the boom period there. He then moved to Los Angeles, where he obtained a master’s degree in technology management from Pepperdine University. He held a variety of jobs, including teaching business courses for an online university.

In interviews the day before the lawsuit was filed, Kar’s aunt and cousin emphasized that he was a “loyal, patriotic American” who had supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

They showed a reporter his apartment, which was decorated with photos, including two of Kar in his Navy uniform, and silver plates commemorating the life of Cyrus the Great. A large American flag hung over the bed, along with banners celebrating the life of reggae singer Bob Marley, whom Kar admired both for his music and his advocacy of world peace, Folger said.

“It’s great news that he is being released,” she said Saturday. “I imagine the government didn’t want to answer in court on Monday. The timing can’t be a coincidence.”

Modarress said Francia told her that Kar, who has been obsessed for more than three years with his Cyrus the Great film, wanted to stay in Iraq for a while to finish the project.

That prospect frightens her, Modarress said.

“Of course, I am very concerned,” the aunt said. “I really don’t want him to stay there.”

Modarress said she feared that with Kar’s story, including his support of the invasion, now public knowledge, “his life could be in danger” if he remained in Iraq.


She said she understood that “his passion was to finish this project, but I really want to talk to him” before he makes a decision about his next move.