3 Years Later, A Prisoner's Family Still Awaits His Return From Iran

21 hours ago
Originally published on April 8, 2021 8:54 am

Later this month, Bahareh Shargi will mark an anniversary: It will be three years that her husband has been stuck in Iran.

Iranian authorities first imprisoned Emad Shargi, a U.S. citizen, on April 23, 2018. Though they eventually released him on bail, they did not allow him to leave the country and later returned him to Tehran's Evin prison. Now his family hopes that speaking out may help him.

His wife discussed his case at the Washington, D.C., home where they raised two daughters. She sat on their concrete back porch, which overlooks a playground set from the days when their children were little. "I'm so proud to have spent the last 32 years with him," she said. She calls these last three years spent apart "this ordeal."

Emad, Shargi, 56, is one of numerous U.S. citizens who have been arrested in Iran over the years on opaque charges of espionage. He said he was innocent, and Iran made no evidence public.

Iranian diplomats have frequently spoken of exchanging such prisoners for Iranians in U.S. prisons. While the United States formally rejects any such exchanges, some U.S. and Iranian prisoners were released during the Trump administration. But not Emad Shargi.

Bahareh Shargi, 53, said she and her husband were born in Iran, and both moved to the United States when they were young and became citizens. But they maintained family ties to their native country, and when their children went to college a few years ago, they chose to take an opportunity to live in Tehran.

Emad Shargi in 2015
Bahareh Shargi

"We had this window of time where we thought, 'We can travel,' " she said.

They occupied a house in Tehran belonging to Bahareh Shargi's family. Emad Shargi, a businessman, had previously worked in the Persian Gulf region and briefly worked for the Dutch arm of an Iranian venture capital firm.

His wife insists that they had no hint of trouble with Iranian authorities until after midnight on April 23, 2018, when she woke to find "15, 16, 17 men and a woman, strangers in our home." They took the couple's passports and many other documents, and left with Emad.

She followed him to Evin prison, an imposing mountainside structure in north Tehran. It occupies an outsized place in the Iranian psyche as the destination for many who fall out of favor with Iran's security services. She passed through its gates daily, seeking to meet a senior official, but only reached a secretary who told her to go home. She recounts being told, "We will call you. Your husband will be here for a long, long time."

Emad Shargi was released from prison in December 2018, but his passport was not returned, making it impossible for him to travel. His wife reluctantly returned to the U.S., hoping he could follow. But after nearly two years of waiting, he was rearrested in November 2020.

Bahareh Shargi grew concerned that month when she could not reach him by video conference as she usually did. Finally she learned he was back in prison from the BBC Persian news service. "I opened my phone," she said, and saw "three pictures of a man that looked like Emad, but had aged, I would say, 20, 30 years since the last time I had seen him on FaceTime."

The Shargi family in 2015.
Bahareh Shargi

In February Emad was allowed to begin calling from Evin. He said he had been convicted in a trial he did not attend, and issued a 10-year sentence.

Bahareh Shargi and their daughters, Hannah, 22, and Ariana, 24, gather around the phone when he calls.

"What I've been trying to do lately is let him know we are doing other things and higher up people are doing other things, and 'You are not forgotten,' " Bahareh Shargi said.

On a recent call, she informed her husband that U.S. and Iranian diplomats would be in Vienna this week, passing messages back and forth. It's an effort to find a way for the U.S. to rejoin a nuclear agreement with Iran and other world powers.

When U.S. diplomats last negotiated over Iran's nuclear program during the Obama administration, they worked to keep the talks separate from the discussions of imprisoned Americans. They wanted to avoid being asked to pay a kind of nuclear ransom for prisoners. These most recent nuclear talks are tentative — U.S. and Iranian officials are not even in the same room — but Rob Malley, the U.S. envoy to Iran, said President Biden "cares deeply" about getting "the American citizens released as soon as possible, reunited with their loved ones."

"They're not part of this negotiation, but they're part, in fact, of our thinking," Malley told NPR in an interview Monday. "And we're determined to see them released regardless of what happens on the nuclear track."

The families of Americans being held in Iran have urged the Biden administration to make their release a priority.

"Looking back," said Bahareh Shargi, "it was one big mistake of going there."

She gestured out into the backyard of their Washington home. "His best times were under this cherry blossom tree, which, if you come back in 20 days, is in full bloom [and] pink." She has no way to know when her husband might return to see their backyard cherry trees.

She remembered when their daughters were small, and "showered themselves with cherry blossoms" as the petals fell. "And the reason I say that is that I want to tell these people [that] you have the wrong person. Why do you have Emad?"

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Three years ago this month, authorities in Iran arrested a United States citizen. Businessman Emad Shargi has spent that time in prison, then out on bail, then back in prison. During all those years, he's been away from the family home in Washington, D.C., which we visited this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

BAHAREH SHARGI: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: His wife and daughters live with Olive (ph), their dog. The family has been vaccinated. But for safety, we sat out back on a concrete patio overlooking the playground set.

SHARGI: This is where they played when they were little, that little playground.

INSKEEP: Oh, my.

Bahareh Shargi sat across the table and served tea and snacks.

SHARGI: And those are lovely, coconut and arugula.

DENISE COUTURE, BYLINE: Arugula.

SHARGI: Yes.

INSKEEP: She's talking with our editor, Denise Couture.

In America, someone might say, would you like something to drink? Would you like something to eat? But the Iranian tradition is you're going to bring something. You're not going to ask me if I'd like something.

SHARGI: Oh, no, no, no. I would almost put it in your mouth.

(LAUGHTER)

SHARGI: If my mom was here, she'd be like, no, you didn't do it properly. You should have...

INSKEEP: After the food was served, she began talking of Emad Shargi.

SHARGI: Truly, the honest and truthful and deeper answer is to say Emad is my best friend. He is my core. He is the core of our life and our family. I'm so proud to have spent the last 32 years with him, except for the past three years of this ordeal.

INSKEEP: I just want to note, we just sat down. It took you 10 seconds - I can see how emotional you are even thinking about him for a second. If you need a moment at any time...

SHARGI: No, no, no. We're fine. The emotions are there all day long, every day, Steve, every moment because I was woken up at 2:30 in the morning by finding out that there are 15, 16, 17 strangers in our home there to take Emad.

INSKEEP: That was April 23, 2018. Emad and Bahareh were both born in Iran. They both moved to America when young and became U.S. citizens. He became an international businessman, often working from an office in this house as his daughters came and went. When the girls graduated...

SHARGI: We had this window of time where we thought we can travel.

INSKEEP: The Shargis decided to live for a while in Iran. They were in Tehran the night that authorities came, giving no identification.

SHARGI: Searching our home drawer per drawer, paper by paper, album by album.

INSKEEP: They took the couple's passports. And they took Emad. She followed him to Evin Prison on a mountainside in the northern part of Tehran.

SHARGI: So I went there, you know? And there's this huge, huge, huge kind of gate door that is obviously the main prison - that's the sliding door - and a tiny door next to it.

INSKEEP: She passed through that door day after day and found a secretary who said the same thing day after day.

SHARGI: I keep telling you not to come. You should just go. And we will call you. Your husband will be here for a long, long time.

INSKEEP: He was held for eight months, apparently under investigation for espionage. He said he was innocent. And Iran made no evidence public. At the end of 2018, he was released on bail. But he was not yet allowed to leave Iran. His wife, Bahareh, had to travel home alone.

SHARGI: So I felt so comfortable, confident about, you know, leaving.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

SHARGI: And, yeah, Emad is following practically right behind me on the next flight.

INSKEEP: And then more than two years passed. Last November, she was home in Washington. And he was still living in Tehran, waiting on his passport and under stress.

SHARGI: We FaceTimed...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

SHARGI: ...Every day while he was out. I said, you don't look good, Emad. You really - what's up, you know? And he said, well, in the past week, I've lost 12 pounds.

INSKEEP: And then what happened?

SHARGI: Then we heard on BBC Persia of Emad's detention back to Evin. I opened my phone, looked at these three pictures of a man that looked like Emad but had aged, I would say, 20, 30 years since the last time I had seen him on FaceTime.

INSKEEP: Have you heard from him in the last couple of months?

SHARGI: So it took 2 1/2 months before he called. And he called and said, Bahareh, I am back where I was before.

INSKEEP: He'd been told he was convicted at a trial he did not attend and faced a 10-year sentence. When he calls, his daughters come down the stairs. And the family sits by the phone.

SHARGI: What I've been trying to do lately is to let him know we are doing other things. And higher up people are doing other things, you know? And you are not forgotten, that everybody wants to bring you back home.

INSKEEP: The last time they spoke, she was able to tell him of this week's indirect talks between the United States and Iran. Several U.S. citizens are known to be held in Iran, among them, businessman Siamak Namazi and his father, Baquer Namazi. Robert Levinson disappeared years ago and is believed to be dead. And then there is Emad Shargi. Any evidence against the Americans has not been made public. Iran sometimes talks of exchanging imprisoned Americans for Iranians in U.S. jails. But Bahareh Shargi has no way to know when her husband might return to their backyard in Washington, D.C.

SHARGI: And now, Steve, looking back, it was one big mistake of going there. But what I mean by mistake is that I kept thinking they've made a mistake. His best times were under this cherry blossom tree, which, if you come back in 20 days, is in full bloom, full bloom. It's pink. But then all these blossoms are on the ground. And they always - the kids made snow and did this, you know, showered themselves with cherry blossoms. And the reason I say that is that I wanted to tell these people, this - you have the wrong person (laughter). Why do you have Emad here? That's not who you want. This must be a mistake.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

SHARGI: This is a mistake.

INSKEEP: Bahareh Shargi spoke on a sunny spring day. We left her with her daughters and the dog at their home in Washington and said we'd keep in touch. They said they hoped to introduce us to Emad Shargi once he's home.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAIGO HANADA'S "SOLITUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.