The American Center for Law and Justice has urged Secretary of State John Kerry, who is in Geneva for nuclear talks with Iran, to secure the release of U.S. Pastor Saeed Abedini, who is in an Iranian prison because of his Christian faith, before an agreement on that country's nuclear program.
"The actions of the Iranian regime have utterly ignored President Obama's demand for Mr. Abedini's release," Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the ACLJ, wrote to Kerry this week.
"Failure to secure Mr. Abedini's freedom and return to the United States while executing an agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran sends the unmistakable message that the United States will not protect its own citizens even when dealing directly with the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran," added Sekulow.
Saeed is serving an 8-year sentence despite international efforts and numerous petitions headed by the ACLJ seeking his release. Obama raised the issue of the pastor's detention during his first phone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Sept. 27.
Saeed's family was allowed to visit him in Rajai Shahr Prison this week for the first time since he was abruptly transferred there earlier this month. But Saeed is still being denied the medication he has been prescribed for internal injuries he has suffered at the hands of his captors.
Concerns over Saeed's safety have deepened after his sudden transfer from Evin prison in Tehran to the even more brutal prison in Karaj County of Iran's Alborz Province. "Rajai Shahr is a murders' jail. It's a violent criminals' jail," ACLJ Executive Director Jordan Sekulow earlier said on Fox News.
On Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a bipartisan resolution urging Abedini's immediate release and also condemning Iran's persecution of religious minorities. The House resolution followed a similar move by the Senate the previous week.
"Despite repeated requests for Mr. Abedini's release, Iran responded by taking action against Mr. Abedini and placing him in further peril," Jay Sekulow wrote to Kerry this week. "These actions were certainly not confidence building measures. During current negotiations, which will likely result in relaxed sanctions against Iran, the failure to secure the release and return of Mr. Abedini and the other Americans would be reprehensible."
Sekulow said the nation is in a unique position to leverage the freedom of Americans. "To fail to use such leverage sends a message to the Iranian government that these Americans are expendable. We urge you to send an unequivocal message to the Iranian government that the United States values human dignity and that Iran's imprisonment of an American simply for exercising a fundamental freedom will not go unnoticed."
Sekulow said the United States should not execute any agreement or promise any reduction in sanctions against Iran until Saeed and other Americans wrongfully held in Iran are released and returned. "To do otherwise would constitute a dereliction of office. Mr. Secretary, time is of the essence in this matter. Mr. Abedini needs your help today, before it is too late."
The State Department has repeatedly condemned Iran for holding Saeed, and more than 100,000 people have written letters to President Rouhani for the pastor's release.
Saeed grew up in Iran before converting to Christianity at the age of 20. He later traveled with his family back and forth between Iran and the U.S. to meet other members of his family and for Christian work.
During one such trip in 2009, Saeed was detained by Iranian officials and interrogated for his conversion. While he was released with a warning against engaging in underground church activities, he was once again arrested last July while working on a non-sectarian orphanage project.
Saeed was sentenced earlier this year for endangering "national security," but the ACLJ believes the punishment has more to do with Saeed's Christian faith.
The ACLJ has launched a Twitter campaign urging people to contact President Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif for Pastor Saeed's release.