BOISE, Idaho -- BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A decision by Iranian officials to transfer an American pastor from a prison where he was held with other political detainees to a notoriously violent lockup has heightened fears among his relatives and supporters and energized lawmakers demanding his immediate release.
Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, 33, has been in Iranian custody since September 2012, and in January he began serving an eight-year sentence for undermining state security when he tried creating a network of churches in private homes in Iran.
For most of his confinement, Abedini, who is of Iranian origin but had been living in Boise, Idaho, was at Evin Prison in Tehran.
But family members and government officials say he was moved Sunday to Rajai Shahr Prison, described by human rights groups as an extremely brutal facility populated by Iran's most violent criminals with excessive rates of inmate-on-inmate violence.
"Now I'm even more afraid for his life," said his wife, Naghmeh Abedini, who lives in Boise with their two children. "The blow that has come with this news has been even harder than the blow that came with his initial arrest."
The decision to move Abedini is also disappointing in light of the landmark discussion in September between President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The two leaders spoke by phone and agreed to work on concerns about Iran building a nuclear weapon, but during that conversation Obama also pressed for the release of Abedini and other detainees.
This week, the State Department reasserted its call to release, or at least permit a visit by officials from the Swiss Embassy to check on the health of Abedini and detained U.S.-Iranian citizen Amir Hekmati, who was sentenced on espionage charges.
On Thursday, a group of two dozen U.S. senators sent a bipartisan letter asking Obama to engage in direct diplomatic talks with Iran. The letter calls the prison transfer a de facto death sentence.
Transfer to Karaj, customarily used to house violent criminals, has all too frequently been a de facto death sentence for political prisoners.
"We believe this new action by the Iranian regime merits additional response. It is imperative for the United States government to speak out boldly on behalf of Pastor Saeed, at the earliest possible opportunity," according to the letter, signed by Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch.
Relatives and supporters learned of the transfer Monday when Abedini's father tried visiting his son at Evin Prison, only to learn from prison officials of the switch.
Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law & Justice, a group working for Abedini's release, said the transfer comes amid political infighting in Iran and renewed, anti-American sentiment. On Monday, tens of thousands of demonstrators rallied to chants of "death to America" as hard-liners directed a major show of resolve against Rouhani's diplomatic outreach with the United States.
"This is by far the most dangerous and grim situation he's been in since his incarceration," Sekulow said Thursday. "I think this presents a whole new challenge and sense of difficulty in our dealings with Iran."