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Release of 5 Wrongfully Detained Americans from Evin Prison, Iran; Five Released U.S. Prisoners Landed in Doha; Interview with Genser, Attorney for Family of Detained American Siamak Namazi, Jared Genser. Aired 10:30-11a ET
Aired September 18, 2023 - 10:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN NEWS CENTRAL CO-ANCHOR: All right. Breaking news, five Americans who were wrongfully detained in Iran cleared Iranian airspace just a few moments ago. They are one step closer to returning home. They're expected to touch down any moment now in Doha, in Qatar. We have a team of reporters and analysts standing by.
First though, let's go straight to CNN's Becky Anderson who is live in Qatar right now where we're expecting this plane to land very shortly, Becky.
BECKY ANDERSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL NEWS ANCHOR: Well, as the sun is going down here in Qatar, it marks the end of a nightmarish chapter for these five Americans wrongfully detained in Iran. Siamak Namazi detained for the long -- he's the longest held, detained for nearly eight years, furiously in Evin Prison, the notorious Evin Prison.
As you say, now on route here to Doha. They've set up -- let me stand away from the camera, they've set up the steps here. And as I understand it, the plane which is just moments from here now will taxi around behind me will come on to the apron here, just behind us. They'll pull these steps up. They've got ancillary staff standing by on the tarmac to ensure that the detainees get off safely. And there is, as I can see, just across to my right, a Qatari delegation now waiting to welcome them onto Qatari soil.
Free at last is how they will feel after what has been such a long time. We know that they have been, certainly not confirmed to us, but we understand that the five Iranian prisoners held in the U.S. have been released today, two of whom it is reported have actually arrived back in Doha, I can't that stand that up as of yet. What we can stand up is the official confirmation that these five U.S. detainees are now moments away from arriving here in Doha.
And officially, we can confirm as well that the money, the Iranian assets that were frozen in the South Korean bank account transferred to Switzerland. The U.S. raising a sanctions waiver that that money, the $6 billion has now arrived in the Doha bank account, accessible to Iran to be used, remember in a restricted way for the purchase of humanitarian goods. Moments away, guys, as we speak from the arrival of the Qatar Airways flight here at Doha airport.
BERMAN: All right. Becky Anderson, keep us posted. We'll let you turn around and gaze into the distance. Shout as soon as you see that plane.
SARA SIDNER, CNN NEWS CENTRAL CO-ANCHOR: All right. I want to bring us CNN's Natasha Bertrand. You have been watching as these negotiations have been going on for months and months and months now. Can you give us some sense of how this happened. And I do want to, sort of, reiterate what we heard from John Kirby who talked to our Kate Bolduan, he said, there are seven people actually there. The five who have been detained and two family members who were not allowed to leave Iran.
So, we're talking about seven people, not five who have, sort of, have been stuck in Iran. This has got to be a really, really emotional moment when they touchdown there in Doha.
NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes, Sara. The Biden administration really hailing this as a victory, and I should note that we did just get a statement from President Obama, who said that, today, five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home. He says that they will soon be reunited with their loved ones after enduring years of agony, uncertainty and suffering. And he went on to thank the emir of Qatar and also to the sultan of Oman.
Really key intermediaries here, Oman and Qatar and Switzerland as these negotiations played out over the last several months, last six to seven months when the U.S. was using these intermediaries to communicate with Iran with whom, of course, the U.S. does not currently have diplomatic relations.
Now, in the statement from President Biden, he did reiterate here that the State Department has warned Americans not to travel to Iran. That the State Department has a long-standing travel warning saying that U.S. citizens have -- they face a risk of kidnapping and arbitrary arrest and detention. So, really, the U.S. trying to convey here to the public that while this is a victory by the Biden administration, while this is a sigh of relief, of course, for the families and the people who have been detained there for over five years.
The U.S. is saying, do not go to Iran because of course Iran does not recognize, really, Iranian-American dual citizens. They recognize these citizens as purely Americans and they may use them in the future as these kinds of bargaining chips.
So, again, President Obama issuing the statement, confirming that this is moving forward. Of course, we are about to see them land on the tarmac there. And when they do, we are told, they're going to have access to their cellphones where they can then call their families back in the United States. And then, we expect them to, of course, head back to the U.S. on that very long journey from Doha back to the Washington, D.C. area, guys. KATE BOLDUAN, CNN NEWS CENTRAL CO-ANCHOR: So, what we are looking at -- Natasha, thank you so much.
It looks -- we have -- this appears to be the plane on the ground in Doha, which is a huge moment. So, let's get back over to Becky Anderson who is right there where this plane is pulling up right now. Becky, talk to us.
ANDERSON: That's right. The plane, pulling in, it was about an hour and 45 minutes from Tehran. Pulling on to the apron here at Doha airport now. The steps will be pushed up against the door of that Qatar Airways plane, and we will see the five U.S. detainees, plus two family members descend those stairs where they will, for real, feel like they are free at last.
Ambassador Davis -- I'm just going to walk away from the shot here. Ambassador Davis waiting on the tarmac there, that is the U.S. ambassador to Qatar waiting on the tarmac. He will be the first American to welcome these detainees, wrongly detained in Iraq. Siamak Namazi for as long as nearly eight years in the notorious Evin Prison. In an unprecedented interview with Christiane Amanpour on CNN recently. Talked about having felt abandoned, left behind by other administrations. Well, today, he is headed home.
As I understand it, once these American citizens descend the stairs and are welcomed by the delegation here of Qataris and Americans, they will be processed at the airport here. And I know they will want to get home to the United States as soon as possible.
And we are told that may take an hour and a half, two and a half hours, no confirmation as of yet. But let's just have a look at this shot. I'll pause as we await the door opening on this Qatar Airways jet. As the sun is going down here in Doha, the end of a nightmarish chapter in the lives of five Americans citizens and their families and friends.
BOLDUAN: To say the very least. I mean, what we're going to see right now is the first time in eight years that Siamak Namazi has been able to breathe free air. I mean, this is a huge moment for him and his mother, as Becky has told us, is on board this flight as well. With Emad Sharghi who -- his, I've been following her -- their -- the family struggles for years now. They were just -- she was just up here on set with us. Pleading the case for the Biden administration to continue to negotiate, to try to get these Americans home. And this is one of those moments that would be impossible to try to think of how they are feeling right now as they're about to open the hatch.
BERMAN: You know, it's such a short flight from Tehran to Doha, it's just across the Persian Gulf. A short distance but a huge distance, metaphorically, for these people who a month ago did not know if they would spend the rest of their lives in prison in Iran with virtually no hope of due process. No hope of getting out. So, just think of what this is like when they emerge from that door. SIDNER: Yes, and we will maybe finally learn, eventually, who the other two Americans are, because we've only seen Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi, and Morad Tahbaz. We know that they were in prison, but there are two other Americans whose names and images have not been released. So, we may find out who they are. We know that there are two other members of the family who were not detained but who were not allowed to leave Iran this whole time.
And so, as you are watching this, this is excruciatingly wonderful moment. It must be an overwhelming moment as they walk out.
BOLDUAN: Here we go.
SIDNER: And we're seeing that happen right now. We're trying to see from our vantage point who is coming out.
BOLDUAN: So, that's --
BERMAN: That looks like Morad Tahbaz.
SIDNER: That's -- yes.
BOLDUAN: No, the first one I think --
SIDNER: The first is --
BOLDUAN: -- is Emad Sharghi.
SIDNER: Yes, Emad Sharghi.
BOLDUAN: Then you have Morad Tahbaz, and then you have Siamak.
SIDNER: Christiane Amanpour is here. She's been covering this for a very, very long time.
BOLDUAN: Christiane is getting miked up real quick.
You have Emad Sharghi which --
BOLDUAN: That looks like Emad Sharghi shaking the hand of the U.S. ambassador to Qatar. Then you have Morad Tahbaz. And right there in the back is Siamak Namazi.
Christiane, after all of this time in the conversations you have had, and Siamak -- let's just watch this, guy. Let's stop talking for one second.
SIDNER: I mean, we have been watching extraordinary pictures, the embrace, the long embrace of some of those who have just left Iran. They were on the plane an hour and 45 minutes. They are now on their way home, and they are certainly now free in Doha.
Christiane, as you're watching this, what are you seeing and what your thoughts as you've covered this for so very long and even talked to -- BOLDUAN: Siamak.
SIDNER: -- Siamak who was in Evin Prison and sounded terrified. But he spoke out, hoping beyond hope that the administration would finally help get this done.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Well, look, it's an amazing day for diplomacy. It's an amazing day for humanity. It's an amazing for their families. Most particularly, it's an amazing day for them because, certainly, Siamak has been, you know, held nearly eight full years. Some of it under incredibly harsh solitary confinement, harsh interrogation, under the, you know, the auspices of the Islamic revolutionary guard. Then was able to be moved to a slightly less awful part of the prison where he met up with Emad and Morad and was able to have, you know, a little bit less of a horrible time.
But nonetheless in confinement, and unable to be, you know, free, clearly.
BOLDUAN: Christiane --
AMANPOUR: What you're seeing also is the two others who did not want to be named. They're the ones who came out last.
BOLDUAN: Siamak just released a statement --
BOLDUAN: -- through his attorney. It is a lengthy statement, but just the beginning of it. I would not be free today if it wasn't for all of you who did not allow the world to forget me. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. 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.
AMANPOUR: Yes. I mean, it's great, really. It's great that he had that courage. It's great that he was encourage to, you know, follow through on that courage. He did as you know a -- an op-ed, he wrote to "The New York Times". He went on a hunger strike for several days after he had spent time his seventh year in prison to concentrate the minds of those who were able to liberate him, and that was the U.S. administration, the Iranian regimen, and all the governments who've been helping. Qatar, Switzerland, et cetera, who the president has thanked.
And I think, really poignantly in Siamak's statement is that he has said that he cannot forget the dozens and dozens of prisoners who are still left behind. Not Americans, but nonetheless Iranian citizens who suffer every single day under the, you know, dictatorial, authoritarian regime. Most particularly those who've been put in jail for simply standing up for the right of women to be free and to be fairly treated in their country. Many, many of them are still obviously in prison. And he has, in this moment, of his own freedom has had the generosity and the presence of mind to always remember them as well.
SIDNER: It is beautiful thing. We've also got a statement now from the Tahbaz family. The family of Morad and Vida Tahbaz. They said, look, we are overjoyed and relieved to have our loved ones finally free. Grateful to the president, President Biden, his administration for making the difficult but necessary decision to prioritize the lives of American citizens over politics.
BERMAN: When you think about the uncertainty that they lived under for as long as eight years. When you think about the repression, you understand the hugs that we saw there, tight hugs of the U.S. officials.
BOLDUAN: You know, Jason Rezaian, when he was on recently, he said that -- it was right after the tentative deal was discussed. He had said that just the night before his release, things almost fell apart.
BOLDUAN: And he said, not until you are literally on soil -- on free soil did -- was he going to breathe a sigh of relief. And that's what John Kirby said to us just earlier. He said, we're not going to breathe --
AMANPOUR: You saw that right?
BOLDUAN: We're not going to breathe --
AMANPOUR: They -- it was several hours delayed because of all these snafus with, is the money there? Is the money there? What are the deals? This and that.
SIDNER: Look at that.
BERMAN: It's that hug, I mean.
AMANPOUR: Yes, this is -- that's Siamak, obviously, standing next to him with the mask is Morad Tahbaz. And there are Qatari officials who are also with them. To that side, to the left of the screen is Emad Sharghi. And I would just say that, you know, this is part of the statement. While in Evin Prison, says Siamak, I experienced the worst of humanity every day. But outside of these walls, there were countless people who reminded me of the best of humanity. So, that's, you know, that's really great.
BOLDUAN: It is. You know, put it -- said it all. There's a lot involved here as we know.
AMANPOUR: And --
BOLDUAN: But just -- I keep --
AMANPOUR: And I think one --
BOLDUAN: -- I keep getting goosebumps just seeing freedom.
AMANPOUR: -- one double, you know, heartbreak for the Namazi family is that several years ago, Siamak's dad, Bagher, who's an elderly man, a retired UNICEF officials was lured to Iran as if to see his son. Maybe to help release his son. And what happened? He was snatched.
AMANPOUR: And then Siamak told us in the interview that he didn't even know until the Iranians was presented him in one of the interrogations as emotional blackmail, you know, as you said, of his father in prison garb. And that caused him some tears during our interview. Fortunately, the father over the last year was allowed to be released and --
SIDNER: But he was very ill. I mean, there was a reason for that.
AMANPOUR: He was very ill. I mean, it was absolutely appalling. And now, they're all in the Washington, D.C., area ready to meet their son.
BOLDUAN: Before we jump, I would -- I just received a statement from the Sharghi family as well. Since we've -- we're reading this out and it's just really quite special. Neda Sharghi, she's the sister of Emad who has long advocated and fought for his release. She just -- she said simply, my family is so happy to hear that Emad is no long in Iran and he's on his way home. We've been waiting for this day for almost five and a half years, and I cannot wait to hug my brother and never let him go.
BERMAN: You can see the beginning of those hugs there. And look at those, the three men --
BOLDUAN: That's so cool.
BERMAN: -- walking to freedom now from the plane. They're going inside. There's going to be some processing and then I -- I think not quickly enough for them, they're going to get a plane back --
SIDNER: Back to the United States.
BERMAN: -- to the United States. Back to Washington, D.C.
Becky Anderson, you were there on this tarmac to witness this scene. To see these hugs. Tell us what you saw.
ANDERSON: It's such an emotional moment. I mean, I listened to Christiane's interview with Siamak. I played it again and again. We've been on my show, "Connect the World with Becky Anderson", which is broadcast from this region, following the plight of these prisoners for years as well. And to be here as they touched down for the first time in so long as free men and their family member, of course, with them is remarkably -- it just occurred to me. You know, this flight was less than a two-hour flight.
And yet two hours from here, it was the anniversary of Mahsa Amini's death. The young lady who wore her headscarf badly, according to authorities a year ago and the rest is history. We know what's been going on with the deadly crackdown in Iran. The Americans have said, this doesn't, today, change our relationship with the Iranians who we see as a state sponsor of terrorism and as an adversary.
But I think, you know, we've discussed over the hours since we knew this was happening that this, at least, diplomacy in action. And diplomacy worked today. Whatever happens next on the nuclear file, whatever happen next with the reengagement by Iran certainly by this region and beyond, that's for tomorrow. But for today, diplomacy worked and the Biden administration was able to return five U.S. citizens who have been wrongfully detained.
As Siamak said, and I'll repeat it again, felt abandoned by administrations in the past, by both the Obama administrations and the Trump administration. There have been prisoner swaps in the past, he wasn't part of it. But today is a good new story. And the emotion here on the tarmac is palpable.
SIDNER: And we're just watching these pictures -- we've been watching them over and over again. They're been re-racked (ph) so that you can see that emotion. So, you can see those embraces, they were long embrace. Imagining that those who were in prison, have not embraced anyone for the whole time they've been in there. They're not getting visitors, for example, into a place like Evin Prison.
So, to -- the -- it's sort of, the humanity that you were watching happen, it can't help -- you said, gave you goosebumps. It chokes you up a little bit watching this moment. They're finally going to --
BOLDUAN: They've been able to have phone calls. They've been --
AMANPOUR: You're right. They haven't -- you know, in certain periods, they weren't allowed visitors, but in certain periods they were. I mean, you know, I think we can say now because they're all out, you know, Siamak's mother has been incredibly brave and has traveled many times there and actually accompanied him out. In order to be able to see her, to be able to, you know, sustain him.
And also, clearly, Morad's wife. And I'm sure other family members. It is obviously, you know, they are not free to do it at will, but there are certain attempts, and you know, certain human connections. But you are right, probably the hugs and things they couldn't probably touch. I mean, I don't know that to be honest with you but --
BOLDUAN: They've been -- I mean, as you know, I mean, Siamak was able to call out and speak with you. I know from the Sharghi family, they have phone call communication with him but of course it's monitored.
AMANPOUR: Yes. BOLDUAN: And that is nothing -- I mean, then there's this.
BERMAN: Let's --
BOLDUAN: You know.
AMANPOUR: His call to me was not monitored.
BERMAN: Let's go --
AMANPOUR: It's really interesting.
BERMAN: Let's go right to the White House if we can. Obviously, this has been a priority for President Joe Biden and the Biden administration to get this done.
Arlette Saenz is there for us. Their response over the last few minutes, Arlette?
ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, President Biden was celebrating the release of these five Americans who have been detained in Iran for years. Releasing a statement, saying that they will soon be reunited with their families. Now, John Kirby, a spokesperson from the National Security Council said that they won't be able to fully breathe, that complete sigh of relief until they are back here on the U.S. soil and reunited with their families.
But this does mark a significant moment for those five detained Americans, one of which had been held in Iran for eight years. Now, it also marks a moment, another moment for President Biden where he has secured the release of American detainees or hostages from around the world. Think of the deals that they've also struck with Venezuela and Russia. Of course, in the president's statement that he released a moment ago, he said that there is still more work to be done in order to return more of those Americans who are currently detained around the world.
But in the president's statement, he also noted that he wants to hold Iran accountable for Bob Levinson. Bob Levinson was that American who was detained in Iran for more than a decade and was believed to have died there. In the statement, the president points out that they are issuing new sanctions on Iran today.
Some of those sanctions targeting Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the lies that he had spread about Levinson's whereabouts. They are also sanctioning Iran's ministry of intelligence. Saying that they have detained and interrogated hostages, including at Evin Prison which has those histories of human right abuses.
But for the Biden administration, this does mark a significant moment. After months of painstaking negotiations, there have been some criticisms already from Republican lawmakers, and also on the 2024 campaign trail as people are frustrated with the fact that the U.S. is unfreezing that $6 billion from -- of Iranian funds transferred now from South Korea to Qatar.
Now, the administration insists that these will -- can only be used for humanitarian purposes. That they will be monitored by the treasury department. And ultimately, senior administration officials here have pushed back on their critics. Say that they believe that this deal will stand up. The alternative would have been for these Americans to never to have come home.
BOLDUAN: Arlette Saenz at the White House. Arlette, thank you so much.
Also, joining us now, I believe, we have connected with us. We have Jared Genser, he's a lawyer who's representing the family of Siamak Namazi. Jared, talk to us. Have you had a chance to connect with Siamak or his family? How are they doing and how is he doing?
JARED GENSER, ATTORNEY FOR FAMILY OF DETAINED AMERICAN SIAMAK NAMAZI: He gave me a call as soon as he came off of the plane, and he said, I'm finally free. And it was an emotional moment, I think, for both of us.
I've been at this now seven and a half years, not just for Siamak, but you have to recall his father who spent many, many years as a hostage in Iran. You know, in cell that was incredibly small with no bedding of any kind, on a concrete floor. No toilet, going into a bucket every day. Taken out daily for interrogations. Repeatedly beaten and tased. Just lots of horrific things done to him.
And that was just the begin of the horrific journey, because unfortunately, you know, he was left behind by President Biden in -- sorry, President Obama in 2016, President Trump left him and his father behind two more times, and finally President Biden has gotten the deal done and brought him home. But I'm just so happy for the family who have become like family to me. And I'm so excited for them to finally be all reunited as a family for the first time in so long in just a couple of hours.
BOLDUAN: Jared, I want to talk more about what you can now finally say and speak more freely about what Siamak's endured. But first and foremost, you've been able speak to him, can you tell us more about how he sounded or what else he said?
GENSER: Yes, sure.
BOLDUAN: It's a pretty remarkable moment.
GENSER: No -- I mean -- yes. No, I mean, he sounded elated. He sounded elated. I mean, one of the things, for me, that's been just so amazing since this was first announced that this was going to happen and they were moved to house arrest five or six weeks ago, is that for the first time I was able to actually see Siamak, you know, on FaceTime. He had a cellphone given to him by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to use. And he had a smile on his face. And I've been talking to him for years and years and years on a regular basis, just, you know, from Evin Prison. And you could tell that this just an unbearable pain that he was carrying, not just for what happened to him, but extraordinary guilt about his father becoming a prisoner because he tried to go visit him in jail. And so, this family has been through more than anyone can imagine. And I am just glad that their suffering has finally come to an end. Obviously, there's a long road ahead in terms of their healing, but this is nothing but an extraordinary day.
BOLDUAN: That's also a huge, Jared, because Siamak's mother is on the flight -- was on the flight with him. Christiane was just talking about the courage that she has had throughout this many years. I mean, talk to us now about what you can speak more freely about and -- as Siamak has tried to convey what he has endured in his time.
GENSER: Yes. I mean, it is not something that most people can actually imagine, because we are just incapable of understanding things that are outside of our frame of reference. You can't understand the inhumanity and cruelty of the Iranian Revolution Guards, not only to the American hostage but to their own people on a, you know, on a gross and widespread and systemic scale.
And you know, there is nothing that they won't do. One of the worst things that they did to Siamak was actually not even physically touching him, but after his father became a hostage and he was shown videos of his father being taken into custody at the airport. A couple of weeks later, they came in and told him that his father had died of a heart attack, and we're very sorry we're not going to be able to let you out of here in order to bury him. And they left him that way for one full week before they came and told him that his father was still alive.
BOLDUAN: How is the family today?
GENSER: I mean, they're doing extraordinary. I mean, I think for me to imagine them all finally being able to hug for first time.