US detention of Iran State TV broadcaster shines spotlight on Americans being held by Islamic regime

The Iranian regime that has repeatedly been criticized for detaining Americans and then ignoring calls for their release is now crying foul following the FBI’s arrest of an anchorwoman from Iran's state-run English-language TV channel.

News of the detention of Press TV's Marzieh Hashemi, an American-born newscaster who also holds Iranian citizenship, emerged just a week after Iran revealed it has been holding Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran and the first American to be taken into custody by the Islamic Republic during President Trump’s administration.

Iran's hard-line Vatan-e Emrooz paper blasted the detention of Hashemi as "Saudi-style behavior with a critical journalist”, comparing the case to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also told Press TV that she is a “famous journalist” who has “done nothing but journalism, according to the Associated Press.

"The arrest of Ms. Hashemi is a very clear affront to freedom of expression, a political abuse of an innocent individual and I believe the United States should release her immediately without further delay,” he was quoted as saying.

But Iran's calls for Hashemi's release echo the pleas they themselves have faced regarding Americans who are currently detained there, some who have been languishing in prisons for years.

MICHAEL WHITE

Michael White, a 46-year-old former Navy cook, is the latest American to be detained by Iran. White’s family says he was taken into custody in July last year when he traveled to Iran to visit his girlfriend, whom he had met online. In a statement released for a family spokesperson, Joanne White, his mother, said she is “very worried that's he's not going to make it.”

White had been undergoing cancer treatment and his mother is urging the Iranian government to release him so he can get the "specialized medical care he needs." Why White was even detained by Iran in the first place, as of Thursday, remains a mystery.

XIYUE WANG

In 2017, Chinese-American Princeton graduate student Xiyue Wang was sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly "infiltrating" the country while doing doctoral research on Iran's Qajar dynasty. The university says he was taken into custody a year earlier, but “was not involved in any political activities or social activism; he was simply a scholar trying to gain access to materials he needed for his dissertation.” Over the past several years, Princeton has been working with Wang’s family in hopes of securing his release.

SIAMAK AND BAQUER NAMAZI

In 2015 and 2016, Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi and his 82-year-old father Baquer, a former UNICEF representative who served as governor of Iran's oil-rich Khuzestan province under the U.S.-backed shah, were detained by Iran. They were both, in the words of their family, “convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of ‘collaborating with a hostile state,’ referring to the United States.”

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Both men have been held by Iran for more than 1,000 days and in an open letter written by the family last year, they said Siamak has been “physically and psychologically tortured” in prison and his father’s health “continues to decline”.

NIZAR ZAKKA

Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese-born Internet freedom activist who is a permanent resident of the U.S., also is among those held by Iran. He was detained in 2015 while attending a woman’ empowerment conference he was invited to and has been sentenced to 10 years in prison on spying charges.

ROBERT LEVINSON

One of the most notable cases is the detention of Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent who, if alive, remains the longest-held American hostage in history – having disappeared in Iranian territory almost 12 years ago.

“He is being held against his will, with no human rights or access to his family,” David Levinson, his son, told Fox News in an interview around the start of 2019. “It’s inconceivable that, almost 12 years later, we have no answers. The Iranian government knows what happened to my father and needs to send him now. We continue to push for more action by our government, and awareness of his case worldwide.”

Hashemi, who was born Melanie Franklin in 1959 to a Christian family in New Orleans, was detained Sunday in St. Louis, where she had filmed a Black Lives Matter documentary after visiting relatives in the New Orleans area. She was then taken to Washington by the FBI on a material witness warrant, her elder son, Hossein Hashemi, told the Associated Press.

"We still have no idea what's going on," said Hashemi, a research fellow at the University of Colorado who was interviewed by phone from Washington. He also said he and his siblings had been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury.

This undated photo provided by Iranian state television's English-language service, Press TV, shows American-born news anchor Marzieh Hashemi at studio in Tehran, Iran.

This undated photo provided by Iranian state television's English-language service, Press TV, shows American-born news anchor Marzieh Hashemi at studio in Tehran, Iran. (AP)

The FBI has declined to comment on her case. Federal law though, according to the AP, allows judges to order witnesses to be arrested and detained if the government can prove their testimony has extraordinary value for a criminal case and that they would be a flight risk and unlikely to respond to a subpoena. The statute generally requires those witnesses to be promptly released once they are deposed.

Iran’s Press TV said Hashemi, who converted to Islam and has worked at the state broadcaster service for 25 years, was arrested along with her son, Reza Hashemi.

The broadcaster reported that Hashemi told her daughter she was "handcuffed and shackled" in addition to having her hijab forcibly removed, and was photographed without her headscarf upon arrival at the prison.

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The National Iranian American Council, which describes itself as a nonprofit advocacy group, says it is "concerned by reports of [Hashemi's] mistreatment and reiterates that all nations must observe international law with regard to such detentions."

"Ms. Hashemi’s status as a journalist for an Iranian outlet cannot prevent her from access to the same legal rights afforded to every U.S. person," its president, Jamal Abdi, said in a statement obtained by Fox News.

“NIAC has consistently condemned the Iranian government’s shameful track record of politically motivated detentions - including arbitrarily arresting dual citizens, holding them on spurious charges, subjecting them to cruel conditions, and using them as bargaining chips in negotiations," he added. "Such practices are inhumane, illegal, and often in the service of agendas that seek to preserve U.S.-Iran hostility. It is absolutely critical that the U.S. government not follow suit and instead observe the core values of freedom of speech and freedom of the press."

Hashemi studied journalism at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. During her time there, encounters with Iranian students in the wake of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution sparked Hashemi’s conversion to Islam, the Associated Press says. A marriage brought her to Iran, where she learned fluent Farsi and began working for Press TV.

The English-language station focuses predominantly on international affairs through the lens of how leaders in the Islamic Republic see the world. The hashtag "FreePalestine" accompanies stories on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Fierce criticism of British and American foreign policy is common.

Its broadcasts have also drawn Western criticism.

In 2012, the Anti-Defamation League described the channel as "one of the world's leading dispensers of conspiratorial anti-Semitism in English."

The channel was pulled from the air in Britain in 2011 after a complaint by Maziar Bahari, a Canadian-Iranian journalist for Newsweek who was imprisoned by Iran after the 2009 disputed re-election of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the Green Movement protests. Bahari said the channel aired an interview that had been scripted by his captors, who threatened to execute him unless he cooperated.

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For her part, Hashemi both helmed newscasts critical of the West and offered her own criticisms as well.

In 2009, she said she believed Western media exaggerated popular support in Iran for Mir Hossein Mousavi, a reformist who was later put under house arrest, where he has languished for years after challenging Ahmadinejad in 2009 and leading the Green Movement protests.

Fox News’ Hollie McKay and the Associated Press contributed to this report.