The families of American citizens and dual nationals with strong Western ties held for years in Iran joined forces and met for the first time last week on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting to press international diplomats for their release.
The family members agreed to team up and press the Trump administration and key European officials to help amplify and coordinate their message.
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The action came after trying to work individually and complying with their governments' advice not to work together in the hope that private efforts to lobby the Iranian government would pay off with the release of their loved ones.
Among the family members at the meeting was Sarah Moriarty, daughter of Robert Levinson, the longest-held hostage in U.S. history, assuming he is alive, and a former Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI agent who disappeared in 2007 in Kish Island, Iran.
During the gathering with family members in New York last week, Moriarity grew emotional, lamenting that there are no recent clues or news angles to sell to the media to raise more awareness about her father's disappearance but committing to continuing trying to seek his release and work with other families on a coordinated strategy.
"We've been through three American administrations … he's 70 years old and he's had no contact with anyone, no one from our family for the last 11 years, not anyone that he loves—no human touch," she said. "These are violations of the most basic human rights … he has missed three weddings including my own and the birth of five grandchildren, including two of my own."
"There needs to be more accountability and repercussions for the government of Iran," she said. "If he is still alive … we need to move. Every day that we lose is another day that he is getting older. We don't know how much longer we have."
Moriarty added that "we do not want to face an Otto Warmbier situation." Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who was arrested while visiting North Korea as a tourist in 2016 for trying to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel, was detained in North Korea for a year and a half and died last June just days after he returned home in a coma.
Moriarty and her brother, David Levinson, along with other family members of those detained in Iran, met with several U.S. officials during the United Nations General Assembly meeting. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security adviser John Bolton, while at the U.N. summit, both repeated U.S. calls for Iran to locate Robert Levinson and enable him to return to the United States.
Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian charity worker for Thomson Reuters Foundation, also participated in the meeting with family members as a way to utilize every strategy and combine efforts to try to secure the safe return of his wife, who has been held in Iran for two and a half years.
"We don't normally say Nazanin is a hostage, [though] I do talk about her being a bargaining chip," Ratcliffe wrote in an article posted by the Foundation on Thursday. "She hasn't done anything [wrong]. And actually … [she is a] state-held hostage. The U.K. needs to do something."
Many other family members of Western-linked foreigners or Iranian dual nationals have long accused Tehran of trying to use their loved one's imprisonment as a way to extract monetary concessions from the U.S. government or their families or as a bargaining chip in disputes with the U.S.
Human Rights Watch on Wednesday said it had documented the cases of 14 Iranian dual or foreign national that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has arrested since 2014. Amnesty International puts the number at 15, including Iranian-Americans Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer Namazi, Chinese-American Xiyue Wang, and Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese national and permanent U.S. resident.
Nadim Zakka, his son, recalled how an Iranian official, a member of Iranian President Rouhani's cabinet, had invited Zakka, an internet freedom advocate, to attend a conference in Iran in the fall of 2016. After participating in the conference and taking photos with several Iranian officials, members of the IRGC "kidnapped" him on his way to the airport, his son recalled.
Zakka said his father has begun his sixth hunger strike and is enduring life in an underground, rat- and cockroach-infested cell, where he does not see sunlight, with 50 other people.
"His captor may want to take his dignity but as long as he has his mind and body, he will fight," Nadim Zakka said during the meeting with the other families.
Wang's wife, Hua Qu, said she her husband, a Princeton University graduate student, had approval from the Iranian government to visit and study in the country. That did not prevent him from being arrested and thrown in Iran's notorious Evin prison, she said.
Hua Qu recalled how her son just started kindergarten this month and drew a picture of their family, which included his father—something that has not occurred over the past year.
She said the picture showed them in snow and snowsuits and recalled how the last day the three were together in January 2016 it was a snowy day.
"A lot of times I think my son doesn't remember his dad, but [in the picture] he is wearing the same snow suit as his dad. That actually gives me strength, and I will keep up the effort until my husband comes home."
"This is the first time I've come to UNGA," she said. "The families have never been united—this is the first time. I do this for my husband and my young son."
"People asked me to keep silent a whole year and every single month, I hoped I would see some news … and they would quietly release him, but it didn't happen," she said.
Ali Rezaian, the brother of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, was also on hand last week to share his story with the families of other prisoners held in Iran. Jason was jailed and released in January 2017 as part of a prisoner swap with Iran and the payment of $1.7 billion to Tehran by the U.S. government to settle an old dispute.
Rezaian said the families' decision to come together is a great unifying step that will help them gain power in numbers. He also argued that the family members continue to push their governments to recognize their condition and speak openly about their imprisonment in Iran.
"A lot of times there's hope that Iran will come to their senses, and that never happens. And it's incumbent on families and other government involved to take as much information into consideration as possible and take a clear position and work through it," he said.