Five US citizens and currently imprisoned in Iran feature in a public mural unveiled in Washington to draw attention to hostage-taking and arbitrary detention worldwide.
Produced by Iowan artist Isaac Campbell in partnership with the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation's Bring Our Families Home campaign, it aims to highlight the plights of the at least 64 Americans and dual nationals being wrongfully held by some of the world’s most repressive regimes, and to pressure the Biden administration to engage decisively in their cases.
Among the 18 individuals whose faces are newly emblazoned on a wall in the city's Georgetown neighborhood, just a few miles from the White House, are environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, father and son Siamak and Baquer Namazi, businessman Emad Sharghi, and retired sea captain Shahab Dalili.
Dalili was arrested in Iran in spring 2016 after he returned home to bury his father. Unlike the other detainees, his family did not go public about his case until earlier this year.
Ahead of Shahab’s 60th birthday in April, his wife Nahid told IranWire he had been pressured into signing incriminating false “confessions” because Ministry of Intelligence agents had made him fear for his family's safety. “I’ve been in contact with the US State Department for four long years,” she said. “I have given them Shahab’s name… If there is an agreement and the hostages are released, nobody should be left behind.”
The five prisoners of the Islamic Republic who feature in the mural were arrested on nebulous charges of spying, “collaborating with hostile states” or “acting against national security”. All deny the charges against them and their families believe they are being held as political pawns.
Some of the cases are also made more urgent by fears for their physical health. Baquer Namazi is 85 years old. He was arrested in February 2016, a few months after his son, and held in extended solitary confinement despite his frail condition. He has heart problems and last October had brain surgery due to a life-threatening artery blockage, after which he was returned to Evin Prison.
Campbell, the artist who designed the mural, explained that the Americans’ faces had been plastered onto the wall using flour, water, sugar and paper, and would “fade, tear and eventually disappear over time”.
This symbolic choice, he said, was meant to urge the government to “use the tools available to bring these Americans home – before their faces fade away and disappear from this wall.”
Neda Sharghi, the sister of Emad Sharghi, who has been in prison in Iran since 2018, told ABC News that their father had fainted during the mural’s unveiling as he briefly “felt like there was hope to bring his son home… This is our world.”
Other Americans featured in the mural include WNBA superstar Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan, who are being held in Russia, and several people wrongfully detained in Venezuela. One of them, a US Marine named Matthew Heath, has endured extreme torture and tried to kill himself while chained to a hospital bed earlier this year/
John Foley, the father of James Foley, an American journalist murdered by ISIS operatives in Syria in 2014, said: "This is a short-term campaign. The mural will not last. We want [the families] to know we have their backs. Americans held abroad and journalists around the world are at greater risk than ever. We will not stop advocating for their safety."
The unveiling on Wednesday came a day after US President Joe Biden signed an executive order that declared hostage-taking and the wrongful detention of U.S. citizens a national emergency, paving the way for new or additional sanctions against those involved.
State Department spokesman Ned Price called the mural "a powerful symbol of those who have been deprived and taken from their loved ones”. He added: “We have found that these cases often are best worked behind the scenes. Even though we don't speak of it, it doesn't mean that we aren't working around the clock to see their successful resolution.”