New Orleans, Jan 17 (AP/UNB) — A prominent American anchorwoman on Iranian state television has been arrested by the FBI during a visit to the U.S., the broadcaster reported Wednesday, and her son said she was being held in a prison, apparently as a material witness.
Marzieh Hashemi, who worked for the network's English-language service, was detained in St. Louis, where she had filmed a Black Lives Matter documentary after visiting relatives in the New Orleans area. She was then taken to Washington, according to her elder son, Hossein Hashemi.
The FBI said in an email that it had no comment on the arrest of the woman who was born Melanie Franklin in New Orleans and has worked for Iran's state television network for 25 years.
Hossein Hashemi said his mother lives in Tehran and comes back to this country about once a year to see her family, usually scheduling documentary work somewhere in the U.S. as well.
"We still have no idea what's going on," said Hashemi, a research fellow at the University of Colorado who was interviewed by phone from Washington. He also said he and his siblings had been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury.
The incident comes as Iran faces increasing criticism of its own arrests of dual citizens and other people with Western ties. Those cases have previously been used as bargaining chips in negotiations with world powers.
Federal law allows judges to order witnesses to be arrested and detained if the government can prove their testimony has extraordinary value for a criminal case and that they would be a flight risk and unlikely to respond to a subpoena. The statute generally requires those witnesses to be promptly released once they are deposed.
Marzieh Hashemi, an American citizen, had not been contacted by the FBI before she was detained and would "absolutely" have been willing to cooperate with the agency, her son said.
Asked whether his mother had been involved in any criminal activity or knew anyone who might be implicated in a crime, Hashemi said, "We don't have any information along those lines."
Hashemi said his mother was arrested as she was about to board a flight from St. Louis to Denver. A spokesman for St. Louis Lambert International Airport declined to comment and referred questions to the FBI.
The constitutionality of the material witness law has "never been meaningfully tested," said Ricardo J. Bascuas, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law. "The government only relies on it when they need a reason to arrest somebody but they don't have one."
No matter the reason for Marzieh Hashemi's detention, she should have been granted a court appearance by now, Bascuas said.
She apparently was unable to call her daughter until Tuesday night. The family is trying to hire an attorney, but it has been difficult because she has not been charged with a crime, her son said.
Iran's state broadcaster held a news conference and launched a hashtag campaign for Hashemi, using the same techniques families with loved ones held in the Islamic Republic use to highlight their cases.
"We will not spare any legal action" to help her, said Paiman Jebeli, deputy chief of Iran's state IRIB broadcaster. Iran's Press TV aired footage of her anchoring news programs and discussing the war in Syria, set to dramatic music.
There were no references to any case against Hashemi in U.S. federal courts, nor in Missouri.
Hashemi describes herself online as having studied journalism at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. She converted to Islam in 1982 at age 22 after meeting Iranian activist students in Denver.
She married a man she met while in journalism school. They had two sons and a daughter. Her husband is dead, said Hashemi's brother, Milton Leroy Franklin of the New Orleans suburb of Metairie.
Last week, Iran confirmed it is holding U.S. Navy veteran Michael R. White at a prison, making him the first American known to be detained under President Donald Trump's administration.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi told state TV that Hashemi's arrest indicates the "apartheid and racist policy" of the Trump administration.
"We hope that the innocent person will be released without any condition," Ghasemi said.
At least four other American citizens are being held in Iran, including Iranian-American Siamak Namazi and his 82-year-old father, Baquer, both serving 10-year sentences on espionage charges. Iranian-American art dealer Karan Vafadari and his Iranian wife, Afarin Neyssari, received 27-year and 16-year prison sentences, respectively. Chinese-American graduate student Xiyue Wang was sentenced to 10 year in prison.
Also in an Iranian prison is Nizar Zakka, a permanent U.S. resident from Lebanon who advocated for internet freedom and has done work for the U.S. government. He was sentenced to 10 years on espionage-related charges.
Former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran in 2007 while on an unauthorized CIA mission, remains missing as well. Iran says that Levinson is not in the country and that it has no further information about him. His family holds Tehran responsible for his disappearance.
Washington, Jan 17 (AP/UNB) — A suicide bombing claimed by the Islamic State killed at least 16 people, including two U.S. service members and two American civilians, in northern Syria on Wednesday, just a month after President Donald Trump declared that IS had been defeated and he was pulling out U.S. forces.
The attack in the strategic northeastern town of Manbij highlighted the threat posed by the Islamic State group despite Trump's claims. It could also complicate what had already become a messy withdrawal plan, with the president's senior advisers disagreeing with the decision and then offering an evolving timetable for the removal of the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops.
The attack, which also wounded three U.S. troops, was the deadliest assault on U.S. troops in Syria since American forces went into the country in 2015.
The dead included a number of fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces, who have fought alongside the Americans against the Islamic State, according to officials and the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
According to a U.S. official, one of the U.S. civilians killed was an intelligence specialist working for the Defense Intelligence Agency. The other was an interpreter, who was a contractor.
The attack prompted new complaints about the withdrawal and underscored Pentagon assertions that IS is still a threat and capable of deadly attacks.
In a Dec. 19 tweet announcing the withdrawal, Trump said, "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency." He said the troops would begin coming home "now." That plan triggered immediate pushback from military leaders, including the resignation of the defense secretary.
Over the past month, however, Trump and others have appeared to adjust the timeline, and U.S. officials have suggested it will likely take several months to safely withdraw American forces from Syria.
Not long after the attack Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence repeated claims of the Islamic State's defeat. Speaking at the State Department, Pence said the "caliphate has crumbled" and the militant network "has been defeated." Later in the day he released a statement condemning the attack but affirming the withdrawal plan.
"As we begin to bring our troops home, the American people can be assured, for the sake of our soldiers, their families, and our nation, we will never allow the remnants of ISIS to re-establish their evil and murderous caliphate - not now, not ever," he said.
Others, however, immediately pointed to the attack as a reason to reverse or adjust the withdrawal plan.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump backer and prominent voice on foreign affairs on Capitol Hill, said during a committee hearing Wednesday he is concerned that Trump's withdrawal announcement had emboldened the Islamic State and created dangerous uncertainty for American allies.
"I know people are frustrated, but we're never going to be safe here unless we are willing to help people over there who will stand up against this radical ideology," he said.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., said the attack demonstrates the lethal capability of IS and "the fact that it happened in Manbij, probably the single most complicated area of Syria, demonstrates that the president clearly doesn't understand the complexity of the problem."
Manbij is the main town on the westernmost edge of Syrian territory held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds, running along the border with Turkey. Mixed Kurdish-Arab Syrian forces liberated Manbij from IS in 2016 with help from the U.S.-led coalition.
But Kurdish control of the town infuriated Turkey, which views the main U.S. Kurdish ally, the YPG militia, as "terrorists" linked to Kurdish insurgents on its own soil.
The town has been at the center of tensions in northern Syria, with the militaries of two NATO members, the U.S. and Turkey, on opposing sides. The two sides began joint patrols around Manbij in November as part of an agreement aimed at easing tensions.
Slotkin, a former senior Pentagon adviser on Syria and other international issues, said it's time for Trump to amend or change his withdrawal order to "something more consistent with the threat" in Syria.
Others suggested the attack could trigger change.
"Certainly the Islamic State follows the news closely, and observing the recent controversy over a potential withdrawal would incentivize them to try for a spectacular attack to sway both public and presidential opinion," said Jim Stravidis, a retired Navy admiral who served as top NATO commander.
Trump, meanwhile, reinforced his withdrawal decision during a meeting with about a half-dozen GOP senators late Wednesday at the White House.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who was at the meeting, told reporters on a conference call that the president remained "steadfast" in his decision not to stay in Syria - or Afghanistan - "forever." But the senator did not disclose the latest thinking on withdrawal timeline.
Paul, who has been one of the few voices in the GOP encouraging the president's noninterventionist streak, said Trump told the group, "We're not going to continue the way we've done it."
Video of Wednesday's attack released by local activists and news agencies showed a restaurant that suffered extensive damage and a street covered with debris and blood. Several cars were also damaged. Another video showed a helicopter flying over the area.
A security camera showed a busy street, and then a ball of fire engulfing people and others running for cover as the blast went off.
The names of the American victims are being withheld until their families can be notified.
Beirut, Jan 15 (AP/UNB) — An Arab economic development summit that Lebanon is hosting this weekend has been marred by controversy days before delegates arrive.
Should regional outcast Syria be invited, as demanded by Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah militant group, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad? Should Libya get a seat at the table, despite the unresolved mystery surrounding the disappearance of a Lebanese cleric in Libya four decades ago?
And should Lebanon, which has been without a government for more than eight months, even be allowed to host as it stands at the brink of economic collapse?
Yes, according to President Michel Aoun, who is hoping to use the platform to boost Lebanon's sinking economic credentials. Lebanon's powerful parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, disagrees, saying a country paralyzed by its own divisions cannot successfully host a meeting of Arab nations.
The turmoil and chaos is nothing new to Lebanon, a tiny country fragmented along political and sectarian fault lines. Even in the best of times, it seems to be permanently on the edge of an impending crisis. Now, as a government vacuum stretches into its ninth month, there are real concerns that the ongoing political impasse will scuttle pledges worth $11 billion by international donors and lead to economic disaster.
On Monday, organizers of the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit, or AESD, held a press conference, announcing summit preparations were in place.
"All practical and logistic preparations for this summit have been completed," said Rafik Shalala, the summit's spokesman. Antoine Choucair, a member of the organizing committee, said the event's cost is estimated at $10 million, paid for by the host country.
The AESD was formed in 2009 as an exclusively economic and development conference that tends to involve the private sector, including banks, chambers of commerce, industry and agriculture. The agenda does not include the reconstruction of Syria, much of it ruined in nearly eight years of civil war.
Choucair said up to six heads of state are expected to attend, although that number will likely be lower.
At the heart of Lebanon's political deadlock are divisions between its two opposing pro and anti-Syrian camps. The country held parliament elections in May and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah scored significant gains, but politicians have been unable to form government since. And as President Bashar Assad and his ally Iran are largely seen as having won the war in neighboring Syria, there are concerns that Assad's government is once again trying to reassert its influence in Lebanon.
The question of whether to invite Syria, whose membership in the Arab League was suspended in 2011, quickly became an issue.
Pro-Syrian groups led by Hezbollah have insisted that the Syrian government should be invited.
"In the absence of a government, and because Lebanon should have a uniting, not divisive (Arab) role, and because we don't want the summit to be a failure, I think it should be postponed," Parliament Speaker Berri said, according to his Shiite Amal party, adding that he believed that if the summit is held, Syria should be invited.
"It is not Lebanon who issues the invitations, Lebanon abides by the decisions of the Arab League," Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil responded in a tweet.
Then last week, a new debate erupted over whether Libya should be invited in a dispute that stems from the 1978 disappearance of Shiite cleric Imam Moussa al-Sadr, founder of the Amal party now headed by Berri. The cleric vanished on an official visit to the country when it was ruled by Moammar Gadhafi. The issue remains a longstanding sore point between the two countries, even though Gadhafi was overthrown and killed in 2011.
Al-Sadr's family believes he may still be alive in a Libyan prison, although it is widely believed that the cleric, who would be 90 years old today, is dead.
Berri's Amal group says Libyan authorities have been uncooperative in the case. The party said that Libya's U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli should not be invited, and its supporters threatened to cut off Beirut's airport road to prevent the Libyan delegation from reaching the summit venue should they arrive in the country.
On Sunday night, a group of Amal supporters tore down a Libyan flag decked on a Beirut street along with those of other participant nations, and replaced it with the green flag of the Amal party. The Libyan foreign minister reportedly said in an interview with a local channel Sunday night that Libya will cancel its participation in the summit over the insult to the Libyan flag. Shalala, the summit spokesman, said they have not been officially notified of the Libyan decision.
The fracas over a 40-year-old issue has led to accusations that pro-Syrian groups were trying to derail the summit, because of the absence of Syria. Nadim Koteich, a Lebanese political satirist, lamented the political scene whereby a political group's unilateral decisions are met with silence by the state.
"All Arab countries concerned about Lebanon as a state ... should boycott the economic summit and tell their delegations to cancel their travel to the Lebanese jungle, until the restoration of (Lebanese) sovereignty," he wrote in a Twitter post.
Riyadh, Jan 15 (AP/UNB) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he told the king and crown prince of Saudi Arabia on Monday that the Trump administration expects the kingdom to hold accountable "every single person" responsible for the slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed inside one of the country's consulates after writing columns critical of the government.
In talks with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been accused by some of complicity in the murder, Pompeo said he had been clear about the administration's expectations.
At the end of a trip to Riyadh that also focused on Mideast crises and countering threats from Iran, Pompeo said he had raised the Khashoggi case in his meetings with the king and crown prince along with other human rights issues, including the fate of women's rights activists detained in the kingdom.
"We spoke about the accountability and the expectations that we have. The Saudis are friends and when friends have conversations you tell them what your expectations are," the secretary said. "Our expectations have been clear from early on: Every single person who has responsibility for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi needs to be held accountable."
He said the Saudis understood and had reiterated pledges to pursue the case wherever it leads. He would not comment on U.S. intelligence that has suggested the crown prince may have ordered the killing.
The relationship between Riyadh and Washington remains tense following the killing of Khashoggi, who lived in Virginia and wrote columns for The Washington Post, at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October.
Saudi Arabia has charged 11 people in the death, including several officials close to the crown prince but U.S. lawmakers have been critical of its response, demanding that America withdraw its support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen in response.
Pompeo traveled to Saudi Arabia as part of a broader Middle East tour that has already taken him to Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. He was to depart from the kingdom for Oman shortly after his meetings in Riyadh but canceled plans to wrap up the trip in Kuwait on Tuesday, due to a death in his family.
At each stop, Pompeo has sought to reassure Arab leaders that President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria does not mean Washington is abandoning the Middle East or the fight against the Islamic State group.
Pompeo said he believed he had been successful in explaining Trump's position despite a lack of detail on exactly how and when the withdrawal will take place and differences with Turkey over the fate of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters after American forces leave.
Trump tweeted late Sunday that the U.S. will "attack again from existing nearby base if it (IS) reforms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds." Trump's decision to leave Syria, which he initially said would be rapid but later slowed down, shocked U.S. allies and angered the Syrian Kurds.
Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said later Monday that they spoke by phone to discuss cooperation on the withdrawal of the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria.
Trump backed away from the economic threat in a later tweet. He said he and Erdogan in their phone call discussed creating a 20-mile buffer zone along Turkey's border with Syria as well as economic cooperation between U.S. and Turkey and its "great potential to substantially expand!"
Pompeo also pressed the Saudis on bringing an end to the near two-year-old dispute with its Gulf neighbor Qatar, which has badly hindered U.S. efforts to create a united Arab military alliance to counter Iran.
Tehran, Jan 14 (AP/UNB) — A decades-old Iranian Boeing 707 military cargo plane reportedly carrying meat from Kyrgyzstan crashed on Monday while trying to land west of Iran's capital, killing 15 people on board and leaving a sole survivor, authorities said.
The crash of the jetliner marked just the latest aviation disaster for Iran, which hoped to replace its aging fleet under terms of the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
But instead, President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the accord in May scuttled billions of dollars in planned sales by Airbus and Boeing Co. to the Islamic Republic, only increasing the danger for passengers in Iran planes.
The aircraft, which bore the paint scheme of the Iranian air force's Saha civilian airline, was making emergency landing around 8:30 a.m. Monday at Fath Airport, an airfield controlled by Iran's powerful paramilitary Revolutionary Guard. The plane skidded off the runway, crashed through a perimeter fence and into a residential neighborhood.
Iranian state television aired images of smoke-charred homes and the fuselage of the aircraft lying on the ground in the neighborhood. Nearby was one of its land gear, torn away. Small fires burned around it.
The plane was meant to land at the nearby Payam International Airport, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Tehran, the Iranian capital.
Authorities did not immediately offer a reason for the crew's decision to land instead at Fath Airport. That airport is some 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) southwest of Payam. Its runway is some 1,100-meters (3,600-feet) long, compared to Payam's 3,600 meters (11,800 feet). In November, a commercial airline reportedly mistook Fath for Payam, but was able to abort its landing.
Iran's state-run IRNA news agency later quoted an anonymous aviation official saying Monday's doomed flight likewise mistook Fath for Payam.
Pirhossein Koulivand, the head of the country's emergency medical services, said that of the 16 people on board the plane, only the flight engineer was known to have survived. IRNA reported all 15 bodies of the crew who died had been recovered by Monday afternoon.
Iran's air force said in a statement that the fate of the crew, including their possible "martyrdom," is under investigation. It wasn't immediately clear who owns the plane, though Gen. Shahin Taghikhani, an army spokesman, told state TV that the plane and its crew were Iranian.
Iranians often use the word "martyrdom" for those who die in war or national service.
The plane reportedly was carrying a cargo of meat from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital, to Iran. Since 2016, Iran has been importing meat from Kyrgyzstan, usually via Saha. It imported 150 tons in 2016 and 350 tons in 2017.
Saha Airlines operated one of the world's last commercial flights of the Boeing 707, which was first manufactured in 1958 and helped usher in the jet age. The four-engine, narrow-body aircraft were built until 1979.
Maintenance information regarding the Boeing 707 that crashed Monday was not immediately available. However, Iran has struggled obtaining parts for its aging fleet of airlines, nearly all purchased during the time of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Saha Airlines' Boeing 707s suffered a previous fatal crash in April 2005, when a flight coming from the Kish island crash-landed at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran, killing three passengers.