LANDSTUHL, Germany — Champagne flowed and chocolates were passed around moments after a group of former Iranian American prisoners left Iranian airspace on a Swiss jet that carried them to freedom.
“Everybody was sort of in a state of disbelief, and we still are,” Marine veteran Amir Hekmati said Tuesday.
Hekmati was among a group of four Iranian Americans, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, released Saturday as part of a two-country deal under which the United States also pardoned or dropped charges against 21 Iranians in sanctions-related cases.
In addition, Iran released a fifth American, 30-year-old student Matthew Trevithick, in what U.S. officials described as a separate “humanitarian gesture” that coincided with the lifting of international sanctions on Iran as part of a nuclear pact with world powers.
Commenting on the nuclear deal Tuesday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, welcomed the removal of international sanctions but trampled on hopes of further rapprochement with the United States.
Hekmati, 32, who spent more than four years imprisoned in Iran, said he felt “alive for the first time, like being born again,” as he recounted the dizzying events of the past days: a prison guard telling him to pack, a “nerve-
racking” delay in leaving Iran and the trip that ended at a U.S. military hospital in Germany for the former prisoners to undergo medical tests.
Before his release, he was “at the point where I had just accepted that I was going to be spending 10 years in prison,” said Hekmati, who is from Flint, Mich. He faced espionage-related charges in Iran.
Hekmati, appearing calm and healthy, wore a heavy black sweater and jeans as he met journalists outside the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, accompanied by his brother-in-law and Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.), in whose congressional district Hekmati lives. Hekmati’s two sisters also are staying at the base with him.
“We were speechless for a while,” he said. “But I’ve said a lot, and we still have a lot to talk about.”
Hekmati expressed deep gratitude for the support from loved ones, the news media and elected officials, including President Obama.
“Even the Iranian officials, our captors essentially, were amazed,” he said. “They asked us, ‘Why are they working so hard for you?’ And I just said that it’s America and they love their citizens. Even the other Iranian prisoners were moved.”
When the plane finally took off, and then cleared Iranian airspace, the celebration began.
“Champagne bottles were popped” aboard the Swiss government jet, he said. “The Swiss are amazing. The hospitality. Chocolates. Veal was served.” Switzerland handles U.S. diplomatic affairs with Iran in the absence of direct diplomatic relations between Washington and Tehran.
Hekmati declined to speak in detail about his time behind bars, but he did credit his experience in the U.S. Marines with helping him “withstand all the pressures that were put upon me, some of which were very inhumane and unjust.”
“Hearing about some of my fellow Marines supporting me really gave me the strength to put up with over four years of some very difficult times,” he said.
Rezaian, the Post reporter, also was undergoing medical tests at the U.S. military hospital after almost 18 months in prison.
Rezaian, 39, stood trial behind closed doors in a Revolutionary Court on charges including espionage — allegations he strongly denied. He was found guilty last year and sentenced to a prison term, but the court disclosed neither the specific charges on which he was convicted nor the length of the term.
“I want people to know that physically, I’m feeling good,” Rezaian said during meetings Monday with The Post’s executive editor, Martin Baron, and foreign editor, Douglas Jehl. “I know people are eager to hear from me, but I want to process this for some time.’’
Also released in the deal were Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, 35, of Boise, Idaho, and another Iranian American, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, who opted to remain in Iran. The student, Trevithick, flew out Saturday.
Abedini had been imprisoned since July 2012 for organizing home churches. Hekmati was arrested in August 2011 during a visit to see his grandmother.
Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) met with Abedini for 90 minutes Tuesday at the Landstuhl hospital, the congressman’s office announced.
“I think he’s doing very well — physically, emotionally and mentally,” Pittenger said in a brief telephone interview. “He’s come out of an honest trauma, 3
Pittenger had worked since 2013 to secure Abedini’s release at the request of Charlotte pastor David Chadwick and evangelist Franklin Graham, his office said.
In Tehran, Khamenei, the country’s top religious and political authority, offered no further openings to Washington in his first public remarks since international economic sanctions were lifted Saturday. Instead, he repeated past warnings about Iran’s deep mistrust of the United States.
Khamenei’s approval was critical to last year’s nuclear accord with world powers that limited Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for ending sanctions against Iran.
Khamenei’s nod also was needed for additional talks leading to the prisoner deal that culminated Saturday.
“I reiterate the need to be vigilant about the deceit and treachery of arrogant countries, especially the United States, in this [nuclear] issue and other issues,” Khamenei said, according to Iranian news agencies.
Murphy reported from Washington. William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.