WASHINGTON, March 8 -- Relatives of American hostages being held in Iran are urging Congress to take action to bring them home, including one who's been captive for more than a decade.
The relatives appeared before a congressional hearing Thursday to lobby for the release of Robert Levinson, Nizar Zakka, and Siamak and Baquer Namazi. Saturday will be the 12th anniversary of Levinson's disappearance, the longest any American hostage has been held in foreign territory.
"Time and time again, Bob has been left behind, deprioritized, or seemingly forgotten," Levinson's wife, Christine, said at the hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa and International Terrorism. "This has not been the fault of a single person or administration in our government, but instead has become a systemic failure of this government's ability to uphold our nation's values."
Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., plans to introduce the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, which has support from Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez, Patrick Leahy and Christopher Coons and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. The act makes permanent a special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, an interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell and a Hostage Response Group since their formation under President Barack Obama. It also authorizes presidential sanctions for those complicit, acting on foreign entities' behalf or materially assists hostage activity.
Babak Namazi testified on behalf of his brother, Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American and his father, Baquer Namazi. The two worked for UNICEF and have been imprisoned since October 2016 for "collaborating with a hostile state." The Namazis were detained after a secretive trial in Iran that was condemned by a United Nations panel as a violation of international law.
Omar Zakka spoke to lawmakers on behalf of his father, Nizar Zakka, a permanent U.S. resident and Lebanese citizen who was invited to Iran and detained there on Sept.18, 2015. He was imprisoned for being an alleged U.S. spy.
Zakka described his father's prison cell as being infested with bed bugs and rats and crowded with 17 people per cell. He called his father's detainment "an act of state terrorism."
Deutch blamed the lack of results on "bureaucratic hurdles" and "geocratic shifts" and asked the family members to directly address the White House.
Levinson asked President Donald Trump to meet with relatives to understand their frustrations. She also pointed out the Obama administration was willing to talk with Iran about the issue, whereas the Trump administration has refused. Namazi said direct communication with lawmakers would give families more influence with the White House.
Iran has been allowed to "feign ignorance over and over again" with no repercussions from the U.S. government, Levinson told the committee.
"This is an American issue," said Rep. Michael Waltz. "They're held for no crime, only that their an American -- that's their crime in the eyes of these rogue regimes."
"I hope this will do something to bring Bob home," Christine Levinson added. "But when Saturday's anniversary passes, and the media attention inevitably shifts, a different issue will take priority and we will again feel like we have to take on this immense burden virtually alone."
The act will next be referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs before it goes to the House floor.