By Yeganeh Torbati
DUBAI, March 13 (Reuters) - The family of a former U.S. Marine detained in Iran for 19 months is calling for his release, saying he has suffered in solitary confinement and his cancer-stricken father needs him.
Iranian-American Amir Hekmati, 29, was arrested in August 2011, his family says, and convicted of spying for the CIA, a charge his relatives and the United States deny. His family says he was detained while visiting his grandmother in Tehran.
He was sentenced to death but a higher court "nullified" the penalty in March 2012 and sent the case to another court. He remains in jail with little access to a lawyer or family visits, his sister Sarah Hekmati told Reuters by telephone this week.
"Now, a year later ... there is silence on their end and we really need help understanding where his case is going," she said.
The family was told in February Hekmati had been placed in solitary confinement for 16 months and had begun a hunger strike that left him unconscious, said his brother-in-law, Ramy Kurdi.
They want him freed before the Iranian New Year later this month, an occasion when the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, often pardons non-violent prisoners.
"We understand there is mercy shown to prisoners and they're often released," Kurdi said. "That's our plea as well ... we're worried about his mental, physical and emotional wellbeing."
Iran's judiciary has said Hekmati admitted to having links with the CIA, but denied any intention of harming Iran.
The family has struggled to pursue the case because Iran and the United States have no direct diplomatic relations. Ties were cut in 1980 after Iranian students took 52 U.S. diplomats hostage in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Hekmati has been granted few visits with his lawyer and with his mother, grandmothers and uncle in Tehran, his family said. The Swiss embassy in Iran, which handles U.S. interests, has not been given access to Hekmati, his sister Sarah said.
In 2009, three U.S. citizens were arrested near Iran's border with Iraq and accused of spying for the U.S. government. The trio said they were on a hiking holiday but were jailed and freed after diplomatic efforts by Oman, Iraq and Switzerland.
"NOT A PROBLEM"
Hekmati's sister described him as a careful person, saying that before visiting Iran for the first time, he had informed Iran's interests section in Washington, D.C. of his military past, aware that it might arouse suspicion. But staff there said it "wasn't a problem" and processed his paperwork routinely.
He had served as an infantryman, language and cultural adviser and Arabic and Persian linguist in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2001-2005, doing some of his service in Iraq.
But after two weeks in Tehran, Hekmati went missing one evening in August 2011 when he was supposed to join a family gathering, Sarah Hekmati said.
Relatives went to the house where he was staying and found he was gone, along with his laptop, camera, mobile phone, and passport, she said. The door appeared to have been broken open.
"It was very apparent that he was taken by force," she said.
At first the family sought to resolve the issue locally and received encouraging messages from authorities. Relatives in Iran who had spoken to Hekmati advised against resorting to the media. But they have gone public because the cancer diagnosis of Hekmati's father has injected a new urgency into the situation.
"We felt enough is enough, we can only wait so long given our dad's health," Sarah Hekmati said. "He needs to be here with his dad, his dad needs him." (Reporting By Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Alistair Lyon)