A congressional hearing about Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen imprisoned in Iran, produced more calls for his speedy release and warnings that his situation reflects Iran’s continued poor human rights record.
“The plight of Pastor Saeed’s imprisonment is not isolated, but is symptomatic of the Iranian regime’s hostility to religious minorities,” warned Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chair of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa.
She co-sponsored the joint Dec. 12 hearing titled “Iran’s Persecution of American Pastor Abedini.”
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who chairs a House subcommittee that includes global human rights issues, stressed the urgency of the pastor’s case.
“Time is running out,” he warned, noting the brutal conditions facing Abedini and other prisoners in Iran, including a denial of basic medical care.
Rep. Smith cautioned that the U.S. government “must not waste another opportunity to secure the release of Pastor Abedini.” He asked that the pastor’s release “be front and center in the next round of U.S.-Iranian negotiations.”
Pastor Abedini has been imprisoned in Iran since September 2012. The Iranian government has charged him with compromising national security. The pastor’s supporters say he is being imprisoned for his Christian beliefs.
He was arrested during a visit to help non-religious orphanages in Iran. He shifted to orphanage work in 2009 after previously working with legal house churches until government authorities objected to his work.
Abedini, who was born in Iran and raised as a Muslim, converted to Christianity in 2000. He became a U.S. citizen in 2010 following his marriage to his wife Naghmeh, who is also a U.S. citizen.
He has now been moved to a prison with a reputation for having brutal guards and violent prisoners.
At the Dec. 12 hearing, several speakers called for Iran to protect human rights, especially religious freedom.
Rep. Ros-Lehtinen criticized Iran’s government.
“This is a country that won’t respect other freedoms,” she said. While Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani promised a more open and tolerant government, “it has utterly failed” to protect human rights.
She said that executions have “accelerated,” reaching 300 since August alone.
“If this administration does not hold Iran accountable then no one will,” the congresswoman stated.
Other congressmen at the hearing explained that trust between the United States and Iran must include respect for human rights.
“If Iran expects to participate in a more open and honest relationship with the U.S,” said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), it should “adopt standards and practices adopted by most of the civilized world” and abide by international human rights agreements. He said Pastor Abedini’s release “must be a priority” and should have been a condition for talks about Iran’s nuclear program.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said that the imprisoned pastor’s situation violated “the foundation of trust.” If Iran were to release Abedini, he continued, it would signal good faith negotiations and help the success of nuclear talks.
Another speaker, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), said Iran “continues to flagrantly defy basic human rights.” He stressed that while nuclear deals are very important, “it must not impact our support for human rights.” He urged the U.S. government to do “everything it can” to help free Abedini as well as Amir Hekmati and Robert Levinson.
Hekmati is a U.S. citizen who has been held in Iran for two years on charges of espionage, ABC News reports.
Levinson is a Florida man and retired FBI agent who has been imprisoned for over six years. Although his family and the U.S. State Department say he was on a business trip to Iran as a private investigator seeking to learn more about cigarette smuggling, the Washington Post and the Associated Press have reported that he was working for the CIA.
Witnesses testifying on behalf of Abedini also spoke on the relationship between the support of human rights and foreign policy.
Katrina Lantos Swett, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the daughter of the late long-time congressman Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), said that linking human rights to other policy goals strengthens U.S. foreign policy.
She urged that the United States “continue to sanction human rights abusers.” She called on Americans to ensure that the topics of human rights and religious freedom are “elevated in the public discourse.”
Daniel Calingaert, the executive vice president of Freedom House, also testified. He said he was concerned that improving relationships between Iran and Western nations would “divert the world’s attention from the increasing mistreatment of Christians and other religious minorities throughout the nation.”
“When we stand silent, we send a message that we do not care,” Calingaert insisted.
“Iran’s record on human rights does not improve when the United States stands silent.”