Americans in Iran prisoner swap arrive in Germany

Updated 11:46 PM EST, Sun January 17, 2016
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A file picture shows Iranian-American Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian posing while covering a press conference at Iran's Foreign Ministry in Tehran, on September 10, 2013. Tehran's chief justice Gholamhossein Esmaili confirmed the arrest of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian and his wife, also a journalist, the official IRNA news agency reported. Rezaian, 38, has been the Post correspondent in Tehran since 2012 and holds both American and Iranian citizenship, according to the newspaper and his wife is an Iranian who has applied for US permanent residency and works as a correspondent for The Nation newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates, the Post said. AFP PHOTO/STRSTR/AFP/Getty Images
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A file picture shows Iranian-American Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian posing while covering a press conference at Iran's Foreign Ministry in Tehran, on September 10, 2013. Tehran's chief justice Gholamhossein Esmaili confirmed the arrest of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian and his wife, also a journalist, the official IRNA news agency reported. Rezaian, 38, has been the Post correspondent in Tehran since 2012 and holds both American and Iranian citizenship, according to the newspaper and his wife is an Iranian who has applied for US permanent residency and works as a correspondent for The Nation newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates, the Post said. AFP PHOTO/STRSTR/AFP/Getty Images
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Story highlights

NEW: "I'm a hell of a lot better than I was 48 hours ago," Jason Rezaian tells editors

Rezaian, Marine veteran Amir Hekmati and pastor Saeed Abedini arrive in Germany

One released prisoner, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, opted to stay in Iran, officials say

CNN —  

Three Americans freed in a prisoner swap with Iran are one step closer to reuniting with their families.

Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, Marine veteran Amir Hekmati and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini arrived in Germany Sunday and will meet with their families soon, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Twitter.

The three arrived on a flight at Ramstein Air Base and were scheduled to undergo medical checkups at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a U.S. military hospital.

Earlier Sunday, the group made a stop in Switzerland. A U.S. State Department envoy posted a photo that appeared to show Rezaian standing on a tarmac outside a plane there.

“Thrilled to see #JasonRezaian land safely in #Geneva tonight after 18 months of unjust imprisonment in Iran,” the State Department’s Brett McGurk said on Twitter.

The fourth prisoner released in the swap, identified by U.S. officials as Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, decided not to leave Iran, senior White House officials said. “It’s his free determination” whether he wants to stay in Iran, one official said. “We don’t make that judgment.”

White House officials said earlier Sunday that recently detained student Matthew Trevithick also was released – but not as part of the prisoner swap – and had left Iran. There were no additional details.

The five Americans had been detained in separate cases, some as early as 2011.

Return eagerly awaited

The Washington Post’s executive editor and foreign editor told CNN that they were in Germany to meet with Rezaian.

“I’m relieved, but I’m also elated. I remember the morning a year and a half ago when a scratchy cell phone call told me Jason and his wife had been taken from their apartment the night before,” said Doug Jehl, the newspaper’s foreign editor. “We never could have believed that this nightmare would go on for so long, but I’m just overjoyed that it’s about to be over.”

In a memo to the newspaper’s staff, the editors said they spoke with Rezaian on the phone Sunday night while he was at the hospital next-door. Asked how he was doing, according to the memo, Rezaian said, “I’m a hell of a lot better than I was 48 hours ago.”

An 11th-hour disagreement over whether Rezaian’s mother was on board the flight delayed the plane’s departure, a U.S. official said, but Secretary of State John Kerry said in an interview with The Washington Post that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif assigned four people to help resolve the dispute.

Naghmeh Abedini, the pastor’s wife, said on Twitter that she was hoping to talk with her husband in a few hours. In the meantime, she spoke on the phone with President Barack Obama.

Iranian, dual citizens freed in U.S.

In exchange for the American prisoners’ freedom, the United States pardoned or commuted the sentences of an Iranian and six dual citizens of the United States and Iran in what Obama called a “one-time gesture.”

The men allegedly had been involved in exporting products and services to Iran in violation of trade sanctions against the country. They were accused of exporting goods ranging from electronic components and satellite services to marine navigation and military equipment to Iran.

Khosrow Afghahi, Tooraj Faridi, Bahram Mechanic and Nima Golestaneh were pardoned. Nader Modanlo, Arash Ghahreman and Ali Saboonchi had their sentences commuted, the U.S. Justice Department said.

Obama praised the “tireless” effort that went into the prisoner exchange, which comes a day after international inspectors concluded Tehran was in compliance with the deal governing its nuclear program. Iranian officials and U.S. administration officials confirmed the news Saturday. As a result, some international economic sanctions against Iran were lifted.

The deal came after more than a year of secret negotiations, the officials said. The nuclear agreement “accelerated” the prisoner swap, Kerry said.

Iran prisoner swap: 14 months of secret diplomacy

The United States also agreed to drop charges against 14 other Iranians whose extradition to the United States seemed unlikely, a U.S. official said.

Who are Iranian prisoners released in swap?

Congressmen to meet freed prisoners

Two congressmen were headed to Germany to greet Rezaian and Hekmati.

“I am thrilled and relieved that Jason and these other Americans are no longer in prison,” said Jared Huffman, who represents Rezaian and has been involved in his case.

Huffman said the freed prisoners won’t be on U.S. soil for a few days, he said.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Michigan, said Hekmati’s father had fallen ill in the more than four years that his son has been detained. There is hope “that having Amir back gives him some strength.”

He said family members were feeling “tempered jubilation” while they waited to find out if Hekmati was really released, because they’ve gotten their hopes up in the past.

“Until he was out of Iran, until I got a call from the White House today saying the plane has crossed Iranian border, he is out of Iran, we all took a deep breath. Because it all became real,” the congressman told CNN.

In a statement, Kildee addressed Hekmati, saying, “Amir, I cannot wait to meet you for the first time, give you a big hug, and welcome you home.”

Robert Levinson’s fate unknown

Trevithick’s release was not part of the prisoner swap, but U.S. officials did “indicate to Foreign Minister Zarif that it’d be important for them to try to resolve some of the other cases of Americans detained in the context of this ‘deal,’” a senior administration official told CNN.

During negotiations, another American’s name was apparently on the table: Robert Levinson.

Iran has denied holding Levinson, a former FBI agent and CIA contractor who went missing there in 2007.

Now the agreement between the United States and Iran calls for Iranian officials to “continue cooperating with the United States to determine the whereabouts of Robert Levinson,” a U.S. official said.

Kerry said Sunday that Iran had agreed to deepen coordination in the search.

“We are happy for the other families,” Levinson’s family said in a statement. “But once again, Bob Levinson has been left behind. We are devastated.”

Details on detained, missing Americans

CNN’s Sara Ganim, Chris Frates, Adam Levine, Kevin Bohn, Jim Acosta, Brian Stelter, Allison Brennan, Daniel Burke, Laura Koran, Laurie Ure, Jason Hanna, Sara Mazloumsaki, Josh Gaynor, Jim Sciutto and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.