Locked Tight: Why officials are saying so little about Baton Rouge man jailed abroad

Locked Tight: Why officials are saying so little about Baton Rouge man jailed abroad
Published: Nov. 6, 2015 at 2:09 AM CST|Updated: Nov. 6, 2015 at 3:29 AM CST
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BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - In the five months since Hamed Ghassemi was jailed in Iran, much of what we have learned about his condition has come from Facebook messages from friends on the ground in the Persian country. Meanwhile, many official sources, including the U.S. Department of State, have remained relatively quiet. The possible reasons are varied.

Ghassemi traveled to Iran in June to bury his mother in her native country. His mother was shot to death in an alleged murder-for-hire plot that prosecutors said was ordered by her ex-husband and Ghassemi's father, Hamid.

All three family members were born in Iran, but moved to the United States and the Baton Rouge area over the course of several decades. Each adopted U.S. citizenship.

One possible reason the state department is so quiet is the Privacy Act. Introduced in 1974, the rule states:

No agency shall disclose any record which is contained in a system of records by any means of communication to any person, or to another agency, except pursuant to a written request by, or with the prior written consent of, the individual to whom the record pertains.

Ashley Garrigus, who works for the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the state department, summarized the rule this way: "In order for anyone in the federal government to release information about that individual, they need the written consent of the individual."

There are several exceptions to this rule.

So, how do those individuals stuck in a foreign jail give the thumbs up for the federal government to start releasing their information? The most standard way involves what is called the Privacy Act Waiver.

On the waiver, the individual can choose who gets information, including family, friends, members of Congress, the media, or even the general public. They also can opt out altogether, keeping their information private.

Selecting the waiver is often delivered by members of the consular office, who work with American citizens jailed overseas. They provide information to citizens, but they cannot provide legal council.

"The most standard way that it works is that a consular officer is with them when they sign the waiver," Garrigus said.

But having a consular from the United States is not always easy, especially with nations like Iran.

"U.S.-Iran relations have been very tense for 36 years now, since the revolution occurred in 1979 and since the Tehran hostage crisis took place," said Mark Gasiorowski, a professor at Tulane University.

American diplomats have not been on the ground in Iran for decades. In order to reach citizens jailed there, the United States instead must depend on "protecting powers," nations that act on behalf of another country. In the case of Iran, that nation is often Switzerland.

Swiss diplomats could effectively enter Iranian jails to meet with American citizens on behalf of the U.S.

However, that is not always the case.

"It's all a question whether the Iranian government wants to let the Swiss ambassador in Tehran or some other Swiss diplomat visit," said Gasiorowski. "If they don't want to, they'll just say no. If they're willing to let them visit, they'll say yes."

Gasiorowski said that current global events, including the Iranian nuclear deal, can complicate things further.

"This has created a lot of tension inside Iran, with the hard line faction and the more moderate faction, that tension is pretty substantial right now," Gasiorowski said.

However, ultimately, even if the Swiss managed to visit Ghassemi and he signed the waiver, federal officials in the U.S. still would not necessarily start talking.

"We have no obligation to get someone's information out," Garrigus said. "We want to do whatever is best in the individual's interest, and we want to safe guard their information. Often disclosure is not in their best interest of a US citizen or their family."

Now, it should be noted that ultimately, even if diplomats were to reach him, they cannot get him out of jail. A lawyer in Iran, which Ghassemi has, is required for that.

There are several exceptions to the Privacy Act. Information can be shared for various reasons, including statistical research and if the health and safety of the individual is at risk.

"If the U.S. citizen was kidnapped, we would want to contact their next of kin," said Garrigus. "Same thing if they're injured or if they cannot communicate."

There are specific cases where a consular does not need to be present for the waiver to be signed.

"If the consular doesn't have access to the individual but someone else does – a legal representative – then we can accept the privacy act waiver in the format," Garrigus said. "There are limited circumstances that we can do it over the phone, but we'd seek advice of our legal experts here."

To read the Privacy Act in full, click here.

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