According to Iran’s news agency FARS, Iran has freed four American prisoners including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini. Iran made the announcement on Saturday as they wait for relief from sanctions. The release is part of a prisoner swap deal in which the United States reportedly freed six Iranian-Americans held on charges related to sanctions against Iran, FARS said. Rezaian was detained by Iran in 2014 and eventually charged with espionage and other crimes, according to the Washington Post. Among the other Americans freed include Marine Amir Hekmati.
The Post released a statement Saturday saying that, “While we are hopeful, we have not received any official word of Jason’s release.” Abedini, an Iran native and convert to Christianity, was arrested in 2012 and convicted the next year on charges of attempting to undermine the Iranian government. He had been sentenced to eight years in prison.
The news comes as Iran expects an announcement as soon as today from the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency that would trigger sanctions relief worth billions of dollars tied to the “implementation day” of the landmark nuclear agreement signed July 14. The announcement from the International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to say Iran completed all its requirements before official implementing the deal. CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan reports that a prisoner swap Saturday would return the imprisoned Americans to U.S. hands. U.S. officials would not immediately confirm the announcement. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in Vienna to meet U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, spoke cryptically of a possible negotiation. Iran was seeking a number of detained Iranians in exchange for the Americans. Iran has been known to be holding four Americans:
- Rezaian, who was born in California and holds both U.S. and Iranian citizenship. He was convicted in closed proceedings last year after being charged with espionage and related allegations. The length of his sentence has not been disclosed publicly. The Post and the U.S. government have denied the accusations, as has Rezaian. He was originally detained with his wife in July 2014. She was released on bail in October 2014. Rezaian was the Post’s Tehran correspondent and was accredited to work in the country by the Iranian government.
- Hekmati was detained in August 2011 on espionage charges. His family says he has lost significant weight and has trouble breathing, raising fears he could contact tuberculosis. Hekmati went to Iran to visit family and spend time with his ailing grandmother. After his arrest, his family says they were told to keep matter quiet. He was sentenced to death in 2012. After a higher court ordered a retrial, he was sentenced in 2014 to 10 years.
- Abedini was detained for compromising national security, presumably because of Christian proselytizing, in September 2012. He was sentenced in 2013 to 8 years in prison. President Obama met his wife and children in 2015. There are claims he was beaten in Iranian prison. Abedini was previously arrested in 2009 and released after promising to stop organizing churches in homes. At the time of his arrest, he was running an orphanage in Iran.
- Siamak Namazi, a businessman and the son of a politician from the shah’s era.
Separately, Robert Levinson disappeared in Iran in 2007 while working for the CIA on an unapproved intelligence mission. American officials are unsure if the former FBI agent is even still alive. The Obama administration says the Americans come up in every conversation with the Iranians. The final step in the process triggering “implementation day” would be a statement by the International Atomic Energy Agency, a United Nations’ nuclear watchdog group, that Iran had completed all its requirements under the historic agreement.
Rezaian, a dual Iran-U.S. citizen who has been in jail since July 2014, was convicted last month of espionage in a closed-door trial. The seven Iranian-Americans in U.S. jails who are part of the prisoner swap were being held on sanctions-related charges. Under the deal, the U.S. will also drop efforts to extradite 14 Iranians for alleged involvement in the purchase of arms from the U.S. to Iran, Iranian Prosecutor Abbas Jaafari told Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency.