WASHINGTON A U.S. congressman from Michigan said he worked in public and behind the scenes, once meeting privately with Iran's foreign minister, to win the release of an Iranian-American prisoner from his congressional district sentenced to death for spying.
Amir Hekmati, 32, a Marine veteran who grew up in the Flint area, was released as part of a swap of American and Iranian prisoners and arrived back in Michigan on Thursday. Hekmati, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Iranian origin, had been detained in August 2011 while visiting family in Iran.
Congressman Dan Kildee, a Democrat, told Reuters in an interview after Hekmati's release he met with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at the United Nations in late September as part of his efforts on behalf of Hekmati. He also had a four-hour meeting with Iran's then ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, in December 2013.
Hekmati was released along with Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and three other Americans to coincide with the lifting last weekend of economic sanctions against Iran in return for curbs on Tehran's atomic program. The White House offered clemency to seven Iranians who were convicted or facing trial in the United States.
After the release, Kildee, who represents the struggling industrial city of Flint which was recently hit by lead poisoning in city water, flew to a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany where on Tuesday he met with Hekmati, who said he felt "very lucky" to be free again.
Hekmati initially was sentenced to death and had no communication with family or attorneys.
Kildee said the release had symbolic importance, adding: "We will never leave an American behind."
Kildee's role was praised by many including Hekmati and U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi who tweeted Kildee to thank him "for unrelenting efforts" to help win Hekmati's release.
Only after he was freed was Kildee willing to disclose the back-channel role he had played in U.S. negotiations to secure the release of American prisoners. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry led an effort, connected to the Iranian nuclear deal, that ultimately led to the exchange.
Kildee described a frustrating process in which it was never clear what might happen, and he perceived apparent conflicts between power centers in Iran. His account of events could not be independently confirmed.
"Sometimes you could get someone to agree to something but they can't get it done," Kildee said.
Kildee said he insisted in meetings that Hekmati was innocent of spying charges, and Iranian officials never presented evidence that rebutted his claim.
Momentum started to build in July after the United States and other world powers reached their nuclear deal with Iran. That "created space for direct negotiations through a formal negotiating process," Kildee said.
Kildee first learnt about Hekmati's detention during his first run for Congress in 2012. "After I was elected, it was my job," Kildee said.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by James Dalgleish)
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