Marine’s doubt faded to joy
landstuhl, germany» Pale but smiling, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati recounted Tuesday how disbelief turned to joy when he and three fellow Americans realized that they were being released as part of a deal with Iran and reunited with their families after spending years in Iranian prison.
Speaking publicly for the first time since being allowed to leave Iran in a prisoner swap Sunday, Hekmati said the sudden end to his four-year ordeal still seemed surreal. Convicted by an Iranian court of spying and sentenced to death in 2012, he was given a 10-year sentence on a lesser charge after a retrial.
“I was at a point where I had just sort of accepted the fact that I was going to be spending 10 years in prison, so this was a surprise, and I just feel truly blessed to see my government do so much for me and the other Americans,” Hekmati told reporters outside the U.S. military’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he was taken for treatment.
There was no advance warning of his release, he added. “They just came one morning and said, ‘Pack your things.’ ”
“I was worried that maybe the Iranian side was going to make new demands at the last minute or that the deal wasn’t going to work out, so up until the last second we were all worried and concerned,” he said.
The 32-year-old says he and his fellow prisoners endured repeated delays until they were allowed to board a Swiss government plane. But they weren’t able to relax until the jet had left Iranian airspace, after which “champagne bottles were popped” and veal and chocolates were served, he said.
Hekmati said he felt lucky and humbled by the support he received from those campaigning for his release. He expressed gratitude to President Barack Obama, the U.S. Congress and his other supporters, reserving special thanks for the Marine Corps.
Hekmati said spending 4½ years in prison in Iran “wasn’t good” but that his Marine training helped sustain him.
“I tried my best to keep my head up and withstand all the pressures that were put on me. Some of them were very inhumane and unjust,” he said. “Hearing about some of my fellow Marines supporting me really gave me the strength to put up with over four years of some very difficult times.”
“He has not had much of a chance to exercise, and he’s lost some weight. But he looks fit, and I think he is on the mend,” U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat from Hekmati’s home state of Michigan, told The Associated Press. “A better diet and a chance to exercise ... and I think he’ll turn out to be just fine.”
Hekmati, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and pastor Saeed Abedini arrived late Sunday at Landstuhl for treatment. A fourth American released in exchange for the U.S. pardoning or dropping charges against seven Iranians opted to stay in Iran, and a fifth American was released separately.
From left, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian; his wife, Yeganeh Salehi; his mother, Mary Rezaian; and brother Ali Rezaian reunite near the Ramstein Air Base on Monday in Landstuhl, Germany. Jason Rezaian was freed after almost 18 months of incarceration in an Iranian prison. Martin Baron, The Washington Post