The United States has called on Iran to “immediately release on humanitarian grounds” all U.S. citizens who are “wrongfully” detained in the country.
“The United States will hold the Iranian regime directly responsible for any American deaths. Our response will be decisive,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on March 10.
His remarks came amid news that a new respiratory illness called COVID-19 has spread to Iran’s prisons where U.S. nationals are also held.
“Their detention amid increasingly deteriorating conditions defies basic human decency,” Pompeo said.
Iran’s Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi said a day earlier that Iran had temporarily released about 70,000 prisoners to help stop the growth in infections.
Iran has been one of the hardest hit countries by the deadly virus that originated in China late last year.
The number of officially recorded cases in Iran has reached more than 8,000 people, the Health Ministry said on March 10, with the death toll at 291.
Yet, Iran “continues to unjustly detain several American citizens, without cause or justification,” the U.S. top diplomat said.
He added: “The United States will not rest until all Americans wrongfully detained abroad are returned home.”
Pompeo’s statement came the same day a U.S. federal judge ruled to hold Iran responsible for the kidnapping of former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent Robert Levinson.
He entered a default judgement against the Islamic republic on the 13th anniversary of his alleged abduction.
Wrenching testimony from the FBI agent’s family preceded U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly’s decision in the lawsuit against Iran that included accounts from all of Levinson’s seven children.
An AP courtroom reporter cited Kelly’s ruling as saying that Iran was “in no uncertain terms” responsible for Levinson’s “hostage taking and torture” and entered a default judgment after the country declined to be a party to the lawsuit.
Levinson vanished in 2007 when he was scheduled to meet a source on the Iranian island of Kish. An AP investigation found in 2013 that Levinson had been dispatched on a mission by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analysts who didn’t have authorization to oversee the operation.
However, Iran maintains his disappearance is being investigated and that it’s not a sign he is being prosecuted.
Robert Levinson “has no judicial or criminal case in any Islamic Republic of Iran court whatsoever,” Ministry spokesman Abbas Musavi said on November 10.
The United States is offering $25 million for information about Levinson.
Tehran has only acknowledged its Revolutionary Court had an open case on Levinson in a filing to the United Nations.
The court typically handles cases involving espionage, smuggling, blasphemy, and attempts to overthrow Iran’s Islamic government.