Published March 15, 2013
The wife of an American Christian pastor imprisoned in Iran, in emotional testimony Friday on Capitol Hill, told lawmakers she's "disappointed" with the State Department's lackluster involvement in the case -- as her lawyers accused the government of going completely "AWOL" in the face of prisoner Saeed Abedini's plight.
In a sign of movement, Fox News has learned that Secretary of State John Kerry plans to call commission co-chairman Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., to discuss the case. In addition, Fox News has learned that Suzan Johnson Cook, who handles matters of religious freedom at the department, was expected to meet with the wife Friday. While not confirming specifics, a spokesman for the American Center for Law and Justice -- which represents the family -- said she and her attorneys "met with several State Department officials" Friday afternoon to urge more engagement.
Naghmeh Abedini, the pastor's wife, testified through tears as she described how her children could not understand what happened to their father. "They kept saying, 'Does daddy not love us anymore?' ... And I had to tell them that he was in prison because he loved Jesus."
Saeed Abedini was sentenced to eight years in prison in January. The description of the State Department's involvement in the case provided by the witnesses Friday stood in stark contrast to what administration officials have claimed in response to questions from the media.
While U.S. officials have claimed they're pressing for Abedini's release, the witnesses said a State Department desk officer last year called Naghmeh and told her "there is nothing the United States government can do for you."
Attorney Jordan Sekulow said the same officer called Naghmeh Abedini as she was boarding the plane for Washington on Thursday to tell her, "you've never asked us for help."
"As you can see," Sekulow said, "now they know this hearing is about to happen, and are trying to cover their tracks."
The State Department also declined to attend the hearing Friday despite being invited, a decision fellow attorney Jay Sekulow, Jordan's father, called "inexcusable."
Naghmeh Abedini, after describing in great detail how her husband converted to Christianity, came to America and eventually became a proud American citizen, closed her testimony with words of disappointment about the government's alleged inaction.
"I must say I'm disappointed with our government. I'm disappointed that our president and our State Department has not fully engaged in this case," she said. "I'm disappointed that this great country is not doing more to free my husband -- a U.S. citizen. I expect more from our government."
The hearing Friday was a rare opportunity for Abedini's case to get a public airing on Capitol Hill and could serve to pressure Tehran -- or pressure Washington to bring more attention to the case.
Naghmeh came to the U.S. in 1986. She met Saeed in 2002 and they married two years later. Both had converted from Islam to Christianity -- Saeed became a U.S. citizen in 2010.
The Iranian government does not recognize his American citizenship, though it had enabled him to travel freely between both countries until this past summer, when he was pulled off a bus and placed under house arrest, according to his supporters. Abedini has been held in Iran's brutal Evin prison since September of last year and was sentenced to eight years in prison in January -- accused of evangelizing and threatening national security.
His wife said he's been beaten and suffers internal bleeding. "Every day in that prison is a death sentence for him," she said.
Lawmakers and the witnesses were unrelenting in their criticism of the State Department.
The department was invited to the hearing last week by Wolf, R-Va., co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. A Wolf aide said despite repeated attempts they didn't hear back from the department until Thursday, when the department said no one was available.
"The State Department is AWOL," Jay Sekulow claimed Friday.
The Obama administration has publicly called for Abedini's release. But Naghmeh Abedini recently told Fox News that she has not received a phone call from President Obama or the secretary of state.
The hearing comes after the U.N. Human Rights Council held a meeting in Geneva on Monday that focused on Iran's human rights record. At that meeting, the European Union delegation specifically called for the release of "prisoners of conscience," including Abedini and others.
The U.S. representative, though, did not mention Abedini by name. Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe instead broadly criticized "the Iranian government's ceaseless campaign of abuse" against those who dissent.
She also called the findings of a new report by the Special Rapporteur "serious" and "indicative of an ongoing and intensifying crackdown on human rights defenders and civil society actors."
That report included a section on the Abedini case.
The State Department, when asked why Donahoe did not herself raise the Abedini case, noted that the U.S. delegation focused on that report, "which details the Iranian government's ceaseless campaign of abuse against all who criticize or oppose it."
A State Department official also said that in Geneva, "we made pointed reference to a number of our concerns regarding Iran, along with Syria, China, Cuba and North Korea."
The official said religious freedom is a "top priority" of the administration, and the "White House and State Department have repeatedly and publicly called for Mr. Abedini's release."
"We continue to raise Mr. Abedini's case with a variety of international actors to help raise awareness of his case and secure his release," the official said.
The Obama administration has addressed his case in the past, when questioned by the press.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on March 7 that the administration is "deeply concerned that the Iranians have not yet granted access to him by our Swiss protecting power" and continues to believe "he should be released immediately."
She has previously voiced concern about the fairness and transparency of his trial and claimed the administration is "actively engaged" in the case.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has said the same, and earlier this year he condemned "Iran's continued violation of the universal right of freedom or religion."
The U.N. report said Abedini spent four weeks in solitary confinement and was subjected to tactics like sleep deprivation, after he was arrested in September. The report said he was then transferred to another ward where he was reportedly beaten and initially denied access to medical treatment.
His wife and their two children are in Idaho, though his wife traveled to Washington on Friday for the hearing.