Family pleads for Iran to free ex-US Marine whose death penalty was overturned a year ago

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The family of a former U.S. Marine detained in Iran on espionage charges is begging for his freedom a year after his death sentence was overturned, saying Tuesday they only recently learned he went on a month-long hunger strike and was found unconscious.

Sarah Hekmati told The Associated Press that her family sent a letter to Iran's top leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calling for the release of her 29-year-old brother, Amir. Iran's Supreme Court ordered a retrial for him last March, but that hasn't happened, and he's now been detained for 555 days.

Iran accuses Amir Hekmati of spying for the CIA, but U.S. officials deny the claim and his family said he went to Iran in 2011 simply to visit his grandmothers. Amir Hekmati was born in Arizona and grew up in Michigan, where his parents and sister still live.

Sarah Hekmati said her brother "went through all the appropriate channels" in preparing for the trip, including disclosing to Iranian officials that he was a U.S. soldier.

She said the family recently learned he went on the hunger strike late last year to protest his solitary confinement.

"None of us knew about this until after the fact. He was found unconscious," said Sarah Hekmati, who spoke to the AP by phone along with her husband, Ramy Kurdi. "We don't know how much physical weight he's lost. We don't know if he passed out or what kind of impact there was ... or what kind of medical attention he received."

She said the letter, sent Tuesday, also begs for his release on humanitarian grounds, because their father is suffering from terminal brain cancer and their maternal grandmother was feeling incredible "stress and anguish."

"She only got to enjoy his company for two weeks," Sarah Hekmati said. "It's very painful — the stress of the unknown is affecting her health."

She added that she was "disheartened" when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he wasn't familiar with her brother's case during his visit last fall to New York to address the U.N. General Assembly.

Others also have campaigned and written letters to Iranian leaders on Hekmati's behalf, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Family members held a silent demonstration in January outside Iran's U.N. mission in New York on the 500th day of his imprisonment.

Sarah Hekmati said she's trying to remain hopeful, as she was last year when the Iranian high court ordered the retrial after a prosecutor said "shortcomings in the case" had been found. That was followed by the Persian New Year in late March, when Iran has previously released prisoners, she said.

"Now we're a year later, dealing with the same anniversary date, the upcoming new year," she said. "We really feel we've tried every avenue to raise awareness."


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