VIENNA - As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage. Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly four years.
Four years ago, Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine, traveled to Iran to visit his grandmother. Two weeks later, he was arrested.
This week his sister, Sarah Hekmati traveled to Vienna to appeal to U.S. and Iranian officials for medical care for her brother, and ultimately his release after only 15 minutes in court.
“And at that point, it was announced within that week after being tried for 15 minutes that he was sentenced to death for — there were a number of charges but over all it was about spying. He was there for espionage," she said.
The charges were later dropped, but Amir remains in jail, accused of working with a hostile government, says Sarah’s husband, Ramy Kurdi.
“It’s been completely dropped by Iran for lack of evidence by the Supreme Court in the latest of cases," he said. "His only charge is cooperating with a hostile country, which is America, but by definition in their laws, America is not a hostile country.”
This cooperation, he says, was simply serving as U.S. Marine before he had acquired Iranian citizenship in order to travel to the country of his heritage.
Kurdi cites other legal justifications for letting Amir free, as the U.S. and Iran continue direct talks here in Vienna aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.
Sarah Hekmati says her family traveled to Vienna to appeal to diplomats, both Iranian and American, for medical care and ultimately freedom for her brother.
"I just want my brother home. I want my dad to hold his son again," she said. "I want my mom’s heart to stop breaking. I want the hole that we all feel by his absence to be filled. I want this nightmare to end.”
Other Americans in Iranian jails
U.S. President Barack Obama says he is “deeply concerned” about Hekmati and three other Americans held in Iranian prisons, including Jason Rezaian an American-Iranian journalist with The Washington Post.
“With respect to U.S. citizens, U.S. persons who are held in Iran, this is something that we continue to push hard on irrespective of the nuclear deal," he said. "It's a top priority for us to make sure that our people are treated fairly.”
Officials say the stakes are too high for the talks — and the families — to tie prisoners to the nuclear deal. Despite Congressional hearings and resolutions, some analysts say U.S. negotiators are not likely to put a nuclear deal at risk over the fate of a few people.