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U.S. pastor Saeed Abedini, currently serving an eight-year prison sentence in Iran, has been given a "glimmer of hope" for clemency after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif mentioned a possible reduced jail sentence.
"Could Iran be willing to give Pastor Saeed clemency? Could it be willing to release him to return to his wife and two children here in the U.S.?" the American Center for Law and Justice, which represents Abedini's wife and two children in the U.S, wrote in a statement on Monday.
"One thing is for sure: Pastor Saeed's release would be a monumental humanitarian gesture for Iran. Clemency would give Iran the opportunity, within their own judicial system, to release Pastor Saeed and show the world that it is serious about changing its human rights' record."
The "glimmer of hope," as the law group described it, stems from an interview Zarif did with CNN last week, where the Iranian official noted that the Islamic country has "various clemency measures" that "can be introduced, happened in the past, can be introduced again in these cases."
Zarif was asked about both Abedini and Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine who was arrested in Iran in August 2011. Though he said clemency was possible, he noted that the decision does not lie with him.
"That is something for the judiciary to decide," the foreign minister said.
In light of those remarks, the ACLJ said that now is the time to really push Iran to release Pastor Abedini and allow him to return to his family in America. The pastor has been held in Iran since July 2012 after being arrested while working on an orphanage project, and accused of endangering national security. His wife, Naghmeh, and the ACLJ believe the punishment has more to do with his Christian faith.
The ACLJ launched a new petition which has already been signed by over 37,000 people as of Monday, and comes a week after news that Abedini was moved from the violent criminals ward in Rajai Shahr Prison to the political prisoner ward.
President Barack Obama has spoken on the phone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about Abedini though the Obama administration was criticized for failing to secure the pastor's release during last year's nuclear negotiations.
A number of U.S. politicians have repeatedly spoken out for Abedini's release, including Senator Rand Paul, who wrote to Rouhani on Friday reminding the Iranian president than the pastor's health is still a major concern and he needs to be brought back home.
"I wish to remain cautiously optimistic regarding the recent diplomatic progress between our two nations," Paul wrote. "However, I must point out that if something were to happen to Pastor Abedini while he is incarcerated, any good will forged over the past few months would likely evaporate. Conversely, granting clemency to Pastor Abedini and allowing him to return to the United States would do much to create a positive atmosphere that would reflect well on future discussions."
ACLJ said that it is asking hundreds of thousands of Americans to stand together in prayer and sign the petition calling for clemency for Abedini.