Shahini, who spoke to The Times from Ninava jail in Gorgan, in northeast Iran, said he was visiting his mother, as well as other family members in Iran when he was arrested on July 11.
He was tried last week, and convicted Saturday after a three-hour court proceeding. His sentencing comes one week after Iranian American businessman Siamak Namazi and his 80-year-old father, Baquer Namazi, to 10 years on similar charges.
It was hoped that the deal would soften relations between Iran and the U.S. Three Americans imprisoned in Iran, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, were freed in a prisoner exchange in January, and President ’s government called on dual nationals to return to Iran to help rebuild the economy. However, a series of arrests followed, with hard-liners using the prisoners as bargaining chips in future negotiations.
Shahini, , and settled in the United States in the early 2000s, said that prosecutors used Facebook and social media posts he wrote in 2009 in support of the Green Movement, the pro-democracy demonstrations that occurred in Iran in response to allegations of fraud in the reelection of then-president , as evidence in his trial.
Shahini, a recent graduate from San Diego State University with a bachelor’s degree in international conflict resolution said, “I don’t know why they even chose to arrest me.” He said that he was only 10 days away from returning to San Diego on the day he was arrested by members of the intelligence unit of the elite Revolutionary Guards. He planned to begin graduate school this fall at San Diego State in Homeland Security Studies.
The State Department hasn’t commented on the news, nor has Iran’s official media reported Shahini’s sentencing.
Shahini said he was kept in solitary confinement for two weeks after his arrest. His family have been able to visit him in prison, and he has been able to make phone calls, but he says he prefers they don’t see him because “the difficult prison conditions make his relatives emotional.”
He said he is in a ward with 200 to 300 prisoners, many of whom are convicted of murder and drug charges. There are eight bathrooms and a handful of showers.
He suffers from asthma and dental problems, and even though prison doctors have seen him, they have not been addressed.
Shahini said he studied national security to build a bridge between Iran and the United States, but states that the Revolutionary Guards oppose better ties between the countries.
“I’m a U.S. citizen,” Shahini said. “Let’s put pressure on the Iranian government so that it will not happen to another citizen. Maybe I am Iranian, but I am also American.”
Once Iranian media outlets announce his sentencing, he avows to start a hunger strike. “I won’t stop unless I am free or die,” he said.
Shahini converted to Christianity, which may go against him with the Islamic Republic.
His sister, Fatemeh Shahini, a former nurse who lives in San Diego, called her brother’s sentencing “a nightmare.”
His girlfriend, Sevil Suleymani, said Shahini and his family were shocked by the swiftness of the proceedings. “After hearing his sentence, he is in a bad situation,” she said. “He is really scared. It is shocking for all us. Nobody expected this.”