After 8 years in an Iranian prison, Siamak Namazi shines light on those left behind
5 American citizens freed in U.S.-Iran prisoner swap. Critics say this kind of hostage diplomacy must stop
As Ali Vaez watched the footage of his longtime friend Siamak Namazi stepping off a flight in Qatar on Monday, he was overcome with emotion.
"I teared up because I've been waiting for this moment for 2,898 days — as long as he had been waiting to once again be a free man," Vaez, project director of the Iran International Crisis Group, told As It Happens host Nil Kölsal.
"I'm overjoyed and elated for him and his family."
Namazi, 51, is one of five American citizens released from Iranian detention on Monday as part of a prisoner swap and financial deal between the Islamic Republic and the U.S. government. The American-Iranian businessman has been in the country's notorious Evin Prison since 2015, when he was arrested on internationally criticized spying charges.
He was released Monday alongside Emad Sharghihi, a venture capitalist sentenced to 10 years; and Morad Tahbaz, a British-American conservationist of Iranian descent who was arrested in 2018 and also received a 10-year sentence.
The United States did not disclose the identifies of the other two Americans, who asked for privacy. All five were freed in exchange for five Iranians in U.S. custody, and an agreement by U.S. President Joe Biden to unfreeze $5.9-billion US in Iranian assets.
Namazi has asked for privacy upon his return as he heals and reconnects with his family. But he issued a statement online thanking everyone who helped secure his freedom.
"Thank you for being my voice when I could not speak for myself and for making sure I was heard when I mustered the strength to scream from behind the impenetrable walls of Evin Prison," the statement reads.
Freedom 'laced with sorrow'
But Namazi uses most of his statement to draw attention to plight of the political prisoners left behind, most of whom do not have dual citizenship with a country that can negotiate for their release.
"I find my ineffable joy of my forthcoming reunification with my family is laced with sorrow — a painful and deep feeling of guilt for taking my breaths in freedom while so many courageous individuals that I love and admire continue languishing behind those walls," he said.
"They are detained for demanding the dignity and freedom that every human being is inherently entitled to; for reporting the truth; for worshipping their God; for being a woman. For nothing. All the political prisoners of Iran, a country where the indomitable courage of women leaves us in awe, deserve their liberty."
Vaez says the statement is a true test of his friend's character.
"It tells me that the Islamic Republic has stolen eight of the best years of his life, but they have not been able to break him," he said.
The problem with hostage diplomacy
Namazi also issued a warning about the circumstances of his release, and a fear that history will repeat itself if Iran is allowed to continue arbitrarily detaining foreign nationals and using them as bargaining chips.
It's a phenomenon that's colloquially known as hostage diplomacy. And when it comes to Iran and the U.S., it dates back to a prisoner swap following the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover and hostage crisis following the Islamic Revolution.
"Over the past 44 years, the Iranian regime has mastered the nasty game of caging innocent Americans and other foreign nationals, and commercializing their freedom. By now Evin Prison is virtually a dystopian United Nations of Hostages," Namazi's statement reads. "If we keep this vile path to profit free of risk and toll, this venal regime will keep treading on it."
This concern was echoed by Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Centre for Human Rights in Iran.
"This deal really does nothing to put an end to this repetitive hostage-taking for foreign policy goals by the Iranian government," Ghaemi told Köksal.
"The problem is each country — U.S., European — will negotiate over its hostages individually.... Therefore, these deals are just going to be relevant to the individuals released — which is very good news — but it does not address the repetition of it and, indeed, encourages more of it."
In 2021, Canada launched the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations, which aims to curb the practice. So far, 71 countries and the European Union have signed on.
Ghaemi, Namazi and Vaez are all calling on the international community to adopt policies to curb hostage diplomacy at the ongoing UN General Assembly in New York — which Iran's hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi is attending.
"Iran arrests people like Siamak as Iranians, but releases them and basically sells them as Americans," Vaez said.
"And that's just a very tragic situation for hyphenated Iranians, whether they're Iranian, Canadian or Iranian American or Iranian European, to be used as bargaining chips in such a cruel way."
In the meantime, Vaez is just happy his friend is home.
Asked what he'll do when he finally sees him face-to-face, he said: "I think I'll take him out for a drink. That's eight years overdue."
With files from The Associated Press. Interview with Ali Vaez produced by Kate Swoger. Interview with Hadi Ghaemi produced by Chris Harbord