Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s statement today that he has the “authority” to exchange Iranian-Americans imprisoned in Iran with the US is a glaring admission that these prisoners are being held as political hostages.
“If ever there was a question that imprisoned dual nationals in Iran are being used as political pawns, Zarif publicly admitted today that his government has taken these people as hostages,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
“The foreign minister spoke as though he was trying to make a business deal when he’s actually playing with the lives of people who have been destroyed by the Iranian government,” he added.
On April 24, 2019, Zarif said he had offered to exchange Iranian-Americans held in Iran with Iranians held in the US but had received no response from the Trump administration.
“I put this offer on the table now,” he said. “Exchange them… I am ready to do it, and I have authority to do it,” Zarif said at an invite-only talk hosted by the Asia Society in New York.
On prior occasions, when confronted with questions regarding Iran’s political prisoners, Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani had repeatedly stated that the country has an “independent judiciary” and that they can’t intervene in its processes.
“Zarif’s statement today lays bare the politicized nature of Iran’s judiciary and entire justice process,” said Ghaemi.
“The Rouhani government’s claims of an independent judiciary are more bogus than ever,” he added.
At least 11 Iranian dual as well as foreign nationals were known to be imprisoned in Iran as of April 2019 including Iranian-American citizen Siamak Namazi held since 2015, American scholar Xiyue Wang and US navy veteran Michael White.
European imprisoned dual nationals include Iranian-British citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, held since 2016, Iranian-Swedish citizen Ahmadreza Djalali, also held since 2016 and Iranian-Austrian citizen Kamran Ghaderi.
In February 2018, the family of Iranian-Canadian dual national Kavous Seyed-Emami was told that he had committed suicide while held for interrogations in Tehran’s Evin Prison.
His family told CHRI that they were pressured to quickly bury him without an independent autopsy. Seyed-Emami’s wife Maryam Mombeini, also a dual national, has been banned from leaving the country ever since.
All of these prisoners were imprisoned either by agents of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry or the intelligence arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, held in solitary confinement for months, and repeatedly interrogated without counsel.
Iran says it does not recognize dual nationalities but Zarif’s offer of a prisoner swap with the US explicitly recognized the detainees’ dual nationalities.
In July 2018, an Iranian judge told Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a London-based former staff member of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, that she would not be released from prison until Iran receives payment for an old debt owed to it by Britain, according to her husband Richard Ratcliffe.
Family members of some of the imprisoned dual nationals have also directly informed CHRI that they were told by Iranian judicial officials to seek a prisoner swap deal from the respective foreign government.
Iran also holds an unknown number of political prisoners including activists, lawyers, labor leaders, journalists, leaders of minority communities and other citizens who do not have dual nationality.