August 1, 2018 / 11:37 AM / 19 days ago

Special Report: A wrenching choice for families: Go public or stay quiet?

August 1 (Reuters) - After Siamak Namazi was arrested in Tehran in 2015, his family faced a wrenching choice: involve the diplomatic machinery of the U.S. government, speak out publicly about the arrest, or quietly work for his release through Iranian officials.

Hua Qu speaks to people as they attend a vigil for Xiyue Wang at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, U.S. September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

It’s the same dilemma diplomats and relatives grapple with each time a U.S. citizen is imprisoned in Iran.

There’s no clear policy on whether families should publicize an arrest or remain quiet, current and former diplomats say, but rather an ad hoc mix of what the family wants and the inclinations of U.S. negotiators.

Still, American diplomats have often advised family members that publicizing arrests could upend chances for release.

Hua Qu, the wife of Xiyue Wang, an American graduate student who has been imprisoned in Iran for nearly two years, says she received early guidance from the State Department after her husband’s detention in August 2016: Keeping quiet could give Iran more flexibility to release Wang.

In a statement on its website, Princeton said it kept Wang’s arrest confidential “on the recommendation of multiple knowledgeable advisers who counseled that publicity would likely impede efforts to secure Mr. Wang’s release.”

Qu said she agreed.

Princeton University graduate student Xiyue Wang and his wife Hua Qu are seen in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters September 16, 2017. Hua Qu/Handout via REUTERS

“We were always hopeful that the Iranian authorities, they will just ultimately drop the case and let him go home at a certain point,” she said in an interview in her apartment near Princeton’s campus last year. “We actually didn’t expect that the situation could last this long.”

Ultimately, the United States, Princeton and Wang’s family kept his detention under wraps for nearly a year, even after he was convicted of espionage and sentenced in April 2017. It was the Iranian government that publicized his case last summer.

In private diplomatic memos released by Wikileaks, American officials grappled with the nuances of whether to go public in individual cases. In one instance they described it as more effective to mount an international pressure campaign when the captive was a well-known journalist with a pregnant wife. But publicity was deemed harmful in another case partly because the Iranian-American worked for a nonprofit viewed with suspicion by Iran.

Adding to the complication for families: Iranian authorities sometimes make promises about their loved ones’ quick release – if only they keep quiet.

“They arrest someone and then they always tell the families, ‘Oh don’t tell anyone, this is a matter of one week or two weeks and then it will be resolved,’ “ said Bijan Khajehpour, a relative and former business partner of Siamak Namazi. Khajehpour was himself jailed in Iran in 2009.

Iran historian Shaul Bakhash, the husband of Haleh Esfandiari, a scholar arrested by Iranian authorities in 2007, said “it’s always wrong to stay quiet.”

Esfandiari was prevented from leaving the country and regularly interrogated. Initially, Bakhash said, the family kept quiet. But when she was arrested, he broadcast that Iran had arrested a grandmother in her 60s on vague charges.

“It’s important for the Iranian authorities … to realize that this kind of conduct is unacceptable by international standards,” Bakhash said.

Editing by Ronnie Greene

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