U.S. Imprisoned Iranian Engineer Secretly For Two Years Before Sentencing

December 15, 2009 7:14 am

In a case drawing criticism from outside lawyers, an Iranian engineer sentenced to prison Monday for violating arms control laws was lured to the nation of Georgia by American authorities for a fake arms deal, arrested, extradited to the U.S., and held in prison for two years — including months in solitary confinement before his guilty plea last year — all totally in secret, according to the Justice Department and media reports.

Export control lawyers told Politico‘s Laura Rozen the politically-charged case of Amir Hossein Ardebili — which was under seal until this month — is troubling for two reasons: first, he was an Iranian who never left Iran, nonetheless lured out of the country and targeted by U.S. law enforcement; and, second, that he was sentenced after two years of secret imprisonment.The Justice Department says the case was kept under seal for so long to protect ongoing investigations based on information obtained in the Ardebili probe.

Here’s the CliffsNotes version of the Ardebili story, based on reports in the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the DOJ’s release on the case:

Contact was first made with Ardebili in 2004 after U.S. authorities, acting on a tip, set up dummy companies in the Philadelphia area. A former government procurement officer who lived with his parents in Sharaz, Iran, Ardebili had never left Iran until he traveled to Georgia. There, in October 2007, American agents taped a meeting in a hotel room where he requested parts for various military uses.

In January 2008 he was extradited to the United States and landed in federal prison in Philadelphia. He was held in solitary confinement for four months and he plead guilty to trying to acquire radar and aircraft parts, including a computer for F-4 fighter jets, in May 2008.

Besides his extended secret confinement, one export control attorney told Rozen that there are jurisdictional issues in the case:

“What’s most interesting here is the U.S. effort to expand, seemingly without limit, claims of U.S. jurisdiction over activities by foreign citizens which are performed in their own countries and which are legal in those countries,” Clif Burns, an export control attorney with Bryan Cave said.

Americans would be “apoplectic” if the reverse scenario occurred, Burns posited.

“What would be the response if Iranian agents abducted the CEO of Twitter while he was in, say, the UAE, dumped him into solitary confinement in an Iranian prison, and secretly indicted him with aiding and abetting sedition by Iranian dissenters?” he said.

No radical, Ardebili, is said to be a businessman in a “cottage industry” of procurement encouraged — but not directly controlled — by the Iranian government.

Tehran has criticized the treatment of Ardebili, and has reportedly linked the case to three American hikers being held in Iran. And Iranian press account of Ardebili’s sentencing carries the headline, “US court sentences abducted Iranian to prison.”

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