Four American hostages in Tehran read statements to Iranian television camera crews on Christmas Day claiming good treatment by their Iranian captors, denouncing the former shah and agreeing with allegations of U.S. spying in Iran.
The statements, part of a 55-minute edited film released in Tehran, were shown on all three U.S. networks yesterday. The networks had rejected the Iranian film last week, when militants demanded payment of $21,250 and insisted that it be shown in full. The conditions were later dropped.
American clergymen who visited with the hostages on Christmas said the statements were "clearly staged." State Department spokesman Hodding Carter yesterday dismissed the broadcasts as "a cynical attempt to divert attention from the fact that 50 hostages are being held illegally with the connivance and the acceptance of the government of Iran."
The four hostages were identified by television reporters as Joseph Subic Jr., 22, who worked in the defense attache's office; Jerry Plotkin, a California businessman who happened to be in the embassy at the time of the takeover; Kevin Hermening, 19, a Marine guard; and Steven Lauterbach, 28.
The film, only portions of which were shown on television here, was heavily edited by the Iranians. However, American clergymen said yesterday that it accurately portrayed the hostages' apparent physical health. The three clergymen, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin of New York City; Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton of Detroit and the Rev. William Howard, president of the National Council of Churches, saw 43 hostages. Seven hostages have not been accounted for.
The hostages read their messages in a monotone from handwritten statements. Although the hostages were closely watched by Iranian militants, one was able to whisper to Gumbleton "This is just a put up job. Don't pay any attention to what you hear," the bishop said.
Gumbleton said he replied: "Aren't you afraid of what might happen if I report that when I return? The hostage answered, "Just tell the truth, sir. That's all we care about."
Hermening said, "We are sorry to admit that so far our government has not given up the shah, but instead made us stay here as hostages. It hurts us to have to say that, but that is what we believe to be the situation. We will always be Americans and still pray that they make the right decision as soon as possible."
Coffin said yesterday the clergymen were instructed by Iranian militants not to discuss politics with the hostages and not to tell them that the shah is now in Panama.
"Why is the ex-shah given protection and sanctuary in the United States of America?" Plotkin asked. "He is an accused criminal and admitted his abuses of power on Iranian TV before he was dethroned.
"Why isn't he extradited like any other alleged criminal would be? The Iman [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini and their new government have promised a fair and open international trial with all nations and churches invited to see that justice is done."
Subic said he had arrived in Iran "thinking that the ex-shah was the best for the country." But after traveling around with Lauterbach, Subic said, "After a while, we started to see more and more poor people, people without homes, food, education. I asked myself what had the shah done. My thinking started to turn around. My eyes and mind were starting to awake to the truth."
After the statements were read, Subic said, the hostages had "made a special Christmas card for the Imam Khomeini."
In a monotone, he read from the card: "A Christmas wish especially for you. Imam Khomeini. Merry Christmas. May Christmas bring you lasting joy and lovely memories. Merry Christmas, the American Hostates, 25 December 1979. Tehran, Iran."
The film also showed Coffin playing the piano and leading the group in singing "Silent Night." It also featured a two-minute Christmas message from Khomeini, read by an Iranian captor, calling on Christians to "rise" and "not let enemies give a false impression of Christianity."
Gumbleton told CBS-TV that the hostages he saw appeared to have been subjected to "intensive interrogation, which of course could be very stressful. However, I had no impression whatsoever that they were mistreated physically or that they were disoriented in any way psychologically."