Sen. Ted Cruz has sent a letter, signed by 23 senators, to President Barack Obama urging him to focus international attention on the detention of U.S. Pastor Saeed Abedini in an Iranian prison because of his Christian faith. Abedini was moved to a more brutal prison this week.
"The President of the United States is in a unique position to focus international attention on the unjust and abusive detention of one of our citizens," reads the letter by Sen. Cruz, days after Saeed was transferred 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," Jordan Sekulow, executive director of American Center for Law and Justice, said on Fox News.
Something can and must be done, Cruz stresses in the letter. "There might also be an opportunity for administration officials participating in nuclear negotiations in Geneva this week to raise the issue directly with their Iranian counterparts. Time is of the essence given Pastor Saeed's current predicament."
Pastor Saeed's only crime is the peaceful practice of his religion, the letter notes. "Even under the terrible circumstances of this year in prison, his courage and faith, and that of his wife, Naghmeh, have been inspirational."
The letter applauds Obama for raising the issue of Saeed's detention during his first phone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Sept. 27.
During his conversation with Rouhani, who is seen as a moderate, Obama noted the nation's concern about three American citizens who have been held within Iran, including Saeed. Pastor's wife, Naghmeh, said at the time it was "the most encouraging news I have heard since Saeed was imprisoned one year ago."
"We believe this new action by the Iranian regime merits additional response," says Cruz in the letter. "It is imperative for the United States government to speak out boldly on behalf of Pastor Saeed at the earliest opportunity, and we look forward to supporting you in this effort."
Among the 23 senators who have signed the letter is Kristen Gillibrand, a Democrat from N.Y., and Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, has also signed it.
The State Department has repeatedly condemned Iran for holding Pastor Saeed, and more than 100,000 people have written letters to President Rouhani for Saeed's release.
Saeed is not allowed any visitors, and he is under quarantine, said Sekulow, whose organization represents Naghmeh and their two children in the United States.
"He is in Ward 9, which is the murders' ward. So he's sharing a 10x10 cell with five people who have been convicted of violent crimes, these are people who are basically on death row," Sekulow said. "So unlike being in a prison that is horrendous and you may face torture, you are now imprisoned with people who are just as violent as maybe those prison guards."
Sekulow added: "Rajai Shahr is the place where political prisoners who are seen as a nuisance, are stowed away. Going to Karaj is a severe punishment. Once in there one stops to be a human being. One is put out of sight, even of human rights activists and the press. In Rajai Shahr, political prisoners have to share cells with dangerous criminals like murderers, rapists and drug addicts who don't hesitate to attack their cell mates. They have nothing to lose: many of them are condemned to death anyway. Murders or unexplained deaths are a regular occurrence."
Saeed – who grew up in Iran before converting to Christianity at the age of 20 – traveled with his family back and forth between Iran and the U.S. several times over the past few years to meet his family and for Christian work.
During one such trip in 2009, he 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 to eight years in prison earlier this year for endangering "national security," but the ACLJ believes the punishment has more to do with Saeed's Christian faith.