The U.S. State Department's "virtual embassy" to Iran, which highlights that country's human rights abuses, has a site listing those jailed for dissent or religious beliefs but it doesn't include imprisoned American Pastor Saeed Abedini, who has been tortured because of his Christian faith.
"Our Virtual Embassy Tehran page has a Faces of Iran site that highlights the cases of dozens of individuals imprisoned in Iran for their political or religious beliefs, their status as a journalist, human rights or women's defender, their role as a student activist, or for simply exercising their universal human right to speak freely," department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters Thursday. "So we call on the Government of Iran to protect this fundamental human right for all its citizens and to support press freedom by releasing journalists unjustly imprisoned for their work."
The page Ventrell referred to carries dozens of names, but not that of Pastor Abedini, who was convicted in Iran's notorious Islamic Revolutionary Court in January for "threatening the national security." He was sentenced to eight years in Tehran's deadly Evin Prison.
The State Department claims there's a reason why Abedini, whose dual citizenship is not recognized by Iran, has not been included in the list.
Abedini was not put on the list because State Department officials are advocating on his behalf based on his status as an American citizen and do not want to dilute that argument by calling him an Iranian citizen, a State Department official told The Washington Examiner. The Faces of Iran page is a work in progress that will feature a new Iranian prisoner with each passing week, the official added.
"The omission of Pastor Saeed Abedini's name from this State Department website is disappointing and represents a missed opportunity for our government to stand-up for the rights of a U.S. citizen, who also happens to be an Iranian citizen," Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, said in a statement. "It's clear that the State Department is calling attention to those Iranian citizens whose rights have been violated. Doesn't a U.S. citizen – who holds dual citizenship – deserve to be included on this list?"
ACLJ, which says Abedini's imprisonment violates Iran's own constitution and multiple international human rights treaties that Iran has signed, is representing Abedini's family in the U.S. The pastor's wife, Naghmeh, who was born in Iran, lives with their two children, ages 6 and 5, in Idaho.
Last month when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for Abedini's "immediate" release, Naghmeh appeared hopeful. "I am very encouraged by Secretary Kerry's statement demanding Saeed's immediate release," she said in a statement released by the ACLJ.
"I am very happy to read that although Secretary Kerry has asked for medical treatment for Saeed, he does not stop there, and states that the best outcome is Saeed's immediate release," she said. "I hope to see more proactive actions from our government. Saeed and I are both proud to be Americans. I am hopeful that this will put more pressure on the Iranian government to act and free Saeed so he can return to our family in the United States."
Naghmeh had earlier said she was disappointed with the government. "I'm disappointed that our president and our State Department has not fully engaged in this case," she said after the State Department did not provide a witness for a hearing at which she testified recently. "I'm disappointed that this great country is not doing more to free my husband – a U.S. citizen. Yes, we are both proud to be American citizens. And I expect more from our government."
In a recent letter written from prison, Abedini described the harsh conditions, saying, "My hair was shaven, under my eyes were swollen three times what they should have been, my face was swollen, and my beard had grown. The nurse would also come to take care of us and provide us with treatment, but she said in front of others 'in our religion we are not supposed to touch you, you are unclean. Baha'i (religion) and Christians are unclean!' She did not treat me and that night I could not sleep from the intense pain I had."
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 in 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 any more underground church activities, he was once again arrested last July while working on a non-sectarian orphanage project.
This weekend, the people of Nampa, Idaho, are organizing a charity walk in support of Abedini. The goal is to let the Abedini family know "beyond the shadow of a doubt" that the people care about them, organizer Annette Welburn told the Idaho Statesman.