Marine veteran Amir Hekmati will have a seat waiting for him in the House chamber Congress for President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address next week, but barring a dramatic diplomatic breakthrough, it will go unfilled.
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., who counts Hekmati and his family among his constituents, is extending the invitation to help raise awareness about Hekmati's plight. The Iraq War veteran is languishing in an infamous Iranian prison after being charged with espionage while visiting relatives there about three years ago, though the former sergeant and U.S. officials have repeatedly denied any claims that he was there to spy.
"Every year, we think about who we should invite to be our guest … and it was very obvious to me that if it was any one person I represent … that I would love to see sitting in that seat, it's Amir Hekmati," Kildee said. "Let's hold a seat for him here to help send a message to the country and to the world and to Iran that Amir Hekmati should be home."
Iranian authorities initially sentenced Hekmati to death, but later overturned the verdict and accused him of aiding a hostile country — the U.S. nited States. He is campaigning to have his case reviewed, though in the meantime he copes with reportedly deplorable conditions in prison.
In conversations with his family here as well as in correspondence with U.S. and Iranian officials, he has described living in a cramped cell among hardened prisoners, starved and struggling with illness. In December, Hekmati launched a hunger strike, but quickly suspended it after Iranian authorities reportedly agreed to reexamine his case.
Fellow veteran Marines here in the U.S. went on hunger strikes in a show of solidarity.
In January, Hekmati – through his family, including his ailing father – charged Iran with seeking to exchange him for prisoners from that country held here. He has previously accused Iran of using him as a negotiating chip in nuclear talks with Washington.
Kildee said he hopes his gesture keeps Hekmati's situation in the public eye. The more people band behind Hekmati, the more likely it is Iran will free the veteran Marine vet, he said.
"As long as Amir's case stays in conversation … it creates the opportunity for Iran to make a gesture of a humanitarian nature that demonstrates that they're serious, that they actually do want to join the global community as a legitimate state we can deal with and have a relations with," Kildee said.
He said he remains in regular contact with Hekmati's family. The three-year ordeal has proven difficult for them, Kildee said.
"It's really tough, the limited interaction that they have with Amir," he said. "It says a lot about Amir that he's more concerned about how his family is handling his imprisonment than himself. This is an incredible young man who continues to serve his country … by being this really strong and honorable voice."
As for Marines interested in helping the cause, Kildee recommends doing everything possible to publicize Hekmati's predicament. Take to social media and talk to friends, he said.
"Anything that we can do that keeps him in the frontal lobe of not just the American people but the global community will contribute to his ultimate freedom," Kildee said.