The Iranian government has returned an ailing, 81-year-old Iranian-American back to prison after a week-long medical leave, defying recommendations from Iran's medical examiner to extend the furlough for at least three months, according to his family members and attorney.
The Tuesday decision shocked and angered the family of Baquer Namazi, the prisoner held in Iran for nearly two years, who had hoped last week's medical leave was a sign that the Iranian government would release him on humanitarian grounds.
"I thought it was a light in a very dark tunnel for the first time in two years," Babak Namazi, the adult son of Baquer Namazi, told reporters on a conference call Tuesday.
"We are in absolute shock," he said. "We had every reason to believe that the government of Iran was recognizing my father's medical condition … then out of nowhere ordering my father to come back [to prison] immediately is astonishing."
Babak Namazi called the decision a "spectacular display of cruelty" against his father, who is suffering from a serious heart condition. The Iranian government temporarily released Baquer Namazi a week ago after he suffered from a precipitous drop in blood pressure.
Baquer Namazi's health has continued to deteriorate while in prison. He had emergency surgery to install a pacemaker to keep him alive in September and has lost 30 pounds during his detention. Before his imprisonment he underwent a triple bypass surgery.
Babak Namazi publicly released a statement his father wrote Tuesday to his UNICEF colleagues thanking them for their efforts.
"I thank you all and I am greatly strengthened morally and otherwise by your efforts to promote justice and bring about freedom for my son and me," he wrote. "Despite the pain inflicted upon my family and myself, I have not lost hope and continue to pray for the great humanitarian causes for which we have all dedicated our lives."
Jared Genser, the family's attorney, said Baquer Namazi's health is failing rapidly and said that the decision to send him back to Iran's notorious Evin prison is "tantamount to a death sentence."
Baquer Namazi was imprisoned in Iran in February 2016 while trying to press for the release of his son, Siamak Namazi, who was jailed during a visit to Iran in the fall of 2015. Baquer is a retired UNICEF official and Siamak is an Iranian-American businessman.
Both were sentenced to 10 years in prison for "cooperating with the hostile American government." Siamak Namazi has spent months of his detention in solitary confinement and has been beaten and tased during intense interrogations, according to his attorney.
The Namazi family fled Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Before the revolution, Baquer Namazi had served as governor of Iran's oil-rich Khuzestan. His son, Siamak Namazi, had traveled back to Iran several times and had worked to encourage the lifting of U.S. and other international sanctions, especially on medicine and medical equipment, against Iran that he argued hurt ordinary Iranians.
He also advocated for stronger ties between the United States and Iran and for expat Iranians to play a role in bridging the gulf between Iran and the West.
Babak Namazi and Genser are in Washington this week to meet with Trump administration officials and members of Congress to press for more action to help secure the Namazis' safe return. On Friday, they plan to meet with several United Nations officials in New York.
In a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last fall, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Iran to release Baquer Namazi on humanitarian grounds. In early September the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention also ruled that the prosecution of the Namazis violated their international right to a fair trial.
Congress has passed several bills denouncing the continued imprisonment of the Namazis and several other Americans, as well as detainees with strong U.S. ties.
Senior members of the Trump administration have tried to engage Iran in negotiations to bring the Namazis home. The Namazi family has applauded the Trump administration for its efforts to free Baquer and Siamak even as they have pressed for more action.
The Namazis met several times with former Trump national security adviser Dina Powell before her departure late last year. Babak Namazi said Tuesday he is "convinced" that the high-level access he has had to Trump administration officials will continue after Powell's departure.
While Genser declined to discuss details of any negotiations the Trump administration has had regarding the release of Americans held in Iran, he stressed that Iran, not the United States, has demonstrated an unwillingness to engage on the issue.
"The responsibility falls on the backs of Iran and its unwillingness to have any discussions to get this done," he said. "We have been grateful for the support of the Trump administration and obviously we continue to need it."