Once tortured in Iranian jail, ex-Marine fights spy claims

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FILE - In this Jan. 21, 2016, file photo, Amir Hekmati waves after arriving on a private flight at Bishop International Airport in Flint, Mich. A former U.S. Marine freed from Iranian custody five years ago is in court with the American government over whether he can collect a multimillion-dollar payment from a special fund for victims of international terrorism. Newly filed court documents show that the FBI opened an investigation into Hekmati, on suspicions that he went to Iran to sell classified information to the regime. He vigorously disputes those allegations. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

WASHINGTON – After Amir Hekmati was released from Iranian custody in a 2016 deal trumpeted as a diplomatic breakthrough, he was declared eligible for $20 million from a special U.S. government fund as compensation for years of imprisonment that included brutal torture.

But payday never arrived, leaving Hekmati to wonder why.

The answer has finally arrived: Newly filed court documents reviewed by The Associated Press reveal decade-old FBI suspicions that he traveled to Iran with the goal of selling classified secrets to the government. Hekmati vigorously disputes the allegations, has never faced criminal charges and is challenging a special master's conclusion that he lied about his visit to Iran and is therefore not entitled to the money.

The FBI suspicions help explain the government's ongoing refusal to pay Hekmati for his ordeal and muddy the narrative around a U.S. citizen, Marine and Iraq war veteran whose release was championed at the U.S. government's highest levels, including by Joe Biden, then the vice president, and John Kerry, then the secretary of state. The documents offer radically conflicting accounts of Hekmati's purpose in visiting Iran and detail the simmering behind-the-scenes dispute over whether he is entitled to access a fund that compensates victims of international terrorism.

Hekmati said in a sworn statement that allegations he sought to sell out to Iran are ridiculous and offensive. His lawyers say the government's suspicions, detailed in FBI documents and letters from the fund's special master denying payments, are groundless and based on hearsay.

“In this case, the U.S. government should put up or shut up,” said Scott Gilbert, a lawyer hired to recover damages. “If the government believes they have a case, indict Amir. Try Amir. But you, the U.S. government, won't do that because you can't do that. You don't have sufficient factual evidence to do that.”

FBI records show an investigation was opened 10 years ago and that Hekmati was interviewed by agents after his release from Iran. Yet prosecutors have brought no case. Years after the FBI scrutiny had begun, Hekmati was awarded payment from the fund — money he expected to receive until the fund's special master revoked his eligibility in January 2020.

Gilbert declined to make Hekmati available for an interview while the lawsuit seeking payment is pending. But in a lengthy internet post published Tuesday, Hekmati accused the FBI of having “abused its authority” and said the Justice Department had failed to respond to evidence he'd presented contradicting the allegations.