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The Extricator

Can a roving former ambassador save the life of a young American sentenced to death in Iran?

May 2012


Pierre-Richard Prosper (left) looks on as Orange County businessman Reza Taghavi (center) returns to California in October 2010. Taghavi was detained in Iran for more than two years on suspicion of aiding a terrorist group, but Prosper used the contacts he developed as an ambassador-at-large to negotiate his release. Photo by Mark J. Terrill

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It's early January, and Pierre-Richard Prosper is on the phone with the parents of Amir Hekmati, a 28-year-old former United States Marine who has just been sentenced to death by a Revolutionary Court in Iran. No, there's nothing new to report, Prosper tells them, then adds: I'm getting encouraging signals from my contacts; the Iranians are open to talks, and that's a start. But it's going to be a very long, very slow process.

Prosper hangs up the phone, but not before he promises to call back immediately if anything changes. He also urges the parents to maintain their diplomatic silence, even though he knows how much they long to publicly denounce Iran's injustice.

Prosper, an attorney, has dealt with the Iranian government before. In fact, it was just two and a half years ago that he intervened on behalf of Reza Taghavi, a wealthy California businessman who was arrested in Iran for allegedly lending financial support to terrorists hostile to the Islamic Republic. As with Hekmati, Taghavi's prospects appeared grim. But Prosper kept working his contacts. And after a long, drawn-out process, he managed in 2010 to secure Taghavi's release.

The subsequent news footage of a smiling 71-year-old man stepping off of a jet at Los Angeles International Airport established Prosper's reputation as someone who could pull off the impossible in a part of the world that views America as the Great Satan. His success also made him the logical person for the Hekmatis to turn to once they realized that their son's life was on the line and that normal diplomatic channels were leading nowhere.

But even a lawyer as well connected as Prosper can only do so much. And this time around, whatever discussions can be arranged will no doubt be complicated by the specter of a seemingly imminent showdown between Western nations and Iran over its nuclear development program.

Just the unusual speed with which Hekmati's case flew through the Iranian court had a surreal aspect to it. In fact, only about four months elapsed from the time Hekmati landed in Iran for a family visit until the day he was condemned to die. Yet in this rush to judgment Prosper sees a thin silver lining. As he explains it: "Having the case and sentencing done allows me to negotiate directly with the government, rather than having to wait for the courts to act - the focus is humanitarian rather than judicial." Of course, this assumes he will be able to effectively engage the Iranians before Hekmati is executed.

Prosper first stepped onto the international stage in the mid-1990s when, as a prosecutor with the International War Crimes Tribunal for Rwanda, he prosecuted a former official for the slaughter and rape of Tutsi civilians and won the world's first genocide verdict. Then, in the wake of 9/11, Prosper served four years as an ambassador-at-large for the Bush administration - a job that, unlike anything he had faced on the African continent, challenged both his loyalties and his sense of justice. Now, as a partner with the law firm of Arent Fox, Prosper specializes in international law. One of his clients is the government of East Timor in the South Pacific, which is seeking to develop its fledgling fossil fuel industry. Another is a London-based natural resources company with mines in Africa.

"As a private citizen, I have latitude diplomats do not," he says from his office in Los Angeles. "As a former diplomat, I have the credentials and the contacts to have my calls taken, and to get in the door. I'm in a unique position to help."

It's no idle boast, says James K. Stewart, the Toronto-based crown counsel who supervised Prosper's work for the UN court in Rwanda. "He has great instincts and the ability to tackle challenges no one else has tackled before. And when all else fails, he is an amazing scrounger. ... He finds a way."

A calm, courtly man in his late 40s, Prosper has a smooth, unlined face that makes him look younger than his years. His passport, however, certainly shows its age, worn down by near-constant world travel.

The son of Haitian immigrants, Prosper was born in Denver around the time that both of his parents were completing their medical residencies. His father was a gastroenterologist; his mother a pediatrician; and together with their newborn son they moved back home to Port-au-Prince. But as the Prospers soon discovered, Haiti was becoming an increasingly dangerous place, and as the dictatorship tightened its grip on power, it viewed the well educated as a particular threat. Finally, after several of their friends mysteriously disappeared, the Prospers fled to the United States with their son, who by that time was four.

The family settled in Saratoga, New York. There, Pierre-Richard attended public school and led what he describes as an upper-middle class life. Still, throughout his childhood he was able to spend at least a part of every summer in Haiti with relatives. These visits not only familiarized him with Haitian culture, but also left him with an abiding hatred for the murderous father-and-son dictators François and Jean-Claude Duvalier - better known as Papa Doc and Baby Doc - who ruled the country during those years with an iron fist. Once, Prosper recalls, when he was making childish jokes about how stupid Baby Doc looked, an aunt clamped her hand over his mouth. "You can't say that," she hissed. "It's too dangerous."

After graduating from Boston College, Prosper came out to California to earn a law degree from Pepperdine University. His first job out of law school was with the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office, first in Inglewood and then in Compton, at a time of rising crime rates and raging gang violence. Then in the spring of 1992 riots broke out over the acquittals of police officers in the beating of Rodney King. At one point for a couple of days, the National Guard had to escort Prosper and his colleagues to work.

Prosper transferred to the DA's hard-core gang unit in 1993, which he found to be an even more intense experience. "That's where," he says, "I first learned to carry the load. Because it is a load. You're sitting there with someone whose daughter was raped and murdered and her body thrown in a dumpster - which was a real case of mine - and her parents are in your office and they're crying their eyes out, and they're asking you, Are you going to win? And you realize what your victory means for that family. And you begin to learn how to shoulder that responsibility - the responsibility to help champion the cause for these victims and families."

From there Prosper moved on to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles to work on major narcotics cases, but before another year passed he ran into Stephen A. Mansfield, a colleague who had just returned from a United Nations fact-finding mission in Rwanda. Mansfield urged Prosper to join an international tribunal that needed talented prosecutors to try those responsible for orchestrating the slaughter of as many as a million minority Tutsis.

Prosper was immediately intrigued. He was also single at the time, with no permanent ties to Los Angeles, and fluent in French, which is widely spoken in the former Belgian colony. "You're a perfect fit," Mansfield told him.

Prosper spent three years in Rwanda and Tanzania as part of a close-knit team of lawyers recruited from around the world to prosecute war crimes under the Genocide Convention - an international agreement that had gone entirely untested since it was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. As lead prosecutor for the first trial, Prosper established a crucial precedent: He convinced an international panel of judges that mass rape, as well as mass murder, qualifies as an act of genocide if the underlying intent is to destroy a culture. And that, Prosper argued, was exactly what a Rwandan mayor named Jean-Paul Akayesu had in mind in early 1994 when he directed the murders of at least 2,000 Tutsis, as well as the rape and torture of many others in the village of Taba.

Of course for the trial, the hard part was persuading survivors to testify. After all, who would want to take the stand to relive the horrors they had been through, let alone face the risk of reprisal? But in the end the survivors confronted Prosper with a simple question - the same question he had heard so many times before as a prosecutor in Los Angeles: Are you going to win? "With your help," he told them. "With your help."

As the 17-month trial progressed, the witnesses trust in him grew to such an extent that when U.N. officials offered to bring in a female prosecutor to ask the women about the rapes that had occurred, they all said no, they wanted Prosper.

His supervisor from that time, James Stewart, marvels at the skill with which Prosper coaxed the witnesses to tell their stories. They seemed, he says, to gather strength and courage as Prosper drew them out. One woman, for example, recounted watching militiamen rape and kill three Tutsi women on Akayesu's orders; among them a young, pregnant woman named Alexia who before she was killed handed her attacker a family Bible. "Take this," she told him, "because it is our memory, and because you do not know what you are doing." Alexia was gang-raped, pummeled until she miscarried, then, along with two other women, beaten to death with clubs. "They were tortured and they died," the witness recalled, "but they continued to be beaten."

In September 1998, Akayesu became the first of more than 40 Rwandans to be tried and convicted of genocide - a crime for which he was sentenced to nine concurrent life terms.

Prosper ended his tour of duty in Rwanda that same year. But before he departed a woman from the village of Taba brought him a message from her people. "Even if you go," she told him, "we will say that you have never left us."

Back in the States, Prosper landed a job with the Clinton administration as a special assistant for war crimes under Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Then after the 2000 election, the Bush administration took him on as an ambassador-at-large for war crimes, reporting directly to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Richard Armitage, who was deputy secretary of state at the time, recalls that Prosper quickly became the driving force behind several international war crimes prosecutions, including that of Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic. But after 9/11 and the controversies that followed over indefinite detentions and "enhanced interrogations" of detainees captured abroad, Prosper's job became a lot more difficult.

Armitage recalls how he, Powell, and Prosper all pushed hard for the release of hundreds of detainees being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo, after evidence showed that they posed no serious threat to national security. But Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had other ideas. They endorsed what came to be known as the "one percent doctrine," which in essence held that if even one percent of the innocent or harmless detainees could contribute actionable intelligence, the U.S. was justified in keeping all of them locked away for good. Prosper, meanwhile, was determined to repatriate as many of them as possible.

To this day Prosper is uncomfortable talking about the Bush administration's interrogation policies, but he does insist that he was unaware of the worst abuses that occurred at Guantánamo - abuses later chronicled in explicit detail in a report by the Bush administration's own Inspector General. (According to the report, some of the detainees were led around on dog leashes, bound in stress positions for hours, stripped naked in the presence of women, and interrogated for 20 hours at a time.)

At the State Department, Prosper also found himself in the middle of a heated debate over the creation of the International Criminal Court. Unlike the ad hoc special tribunal that Prosper served on in Rwanda, the ICC would have both the power and the independence to investigate human rights violations in countries that have fully functional legal systems of their own - an arrangement that President George W. Bush so opposed that he "unsigned" the enabling treaty President Clinton had previously approved.

As the administration's point man on the issue, Prosper argued that the ICC, as conceived, would invest too much power in the prosecutor, with too few checks and balances. (He also argued that such a court would be open to political pressures, usurp cases that could be handled domestically, and threaten U.S. sovereignty.)

These arguments, however, failed to impress human rights organizations that accused the United States of hypocrisy for being unwilling to submit to the same scrutiny it wanted to impose on other nations. And, too, they failed to dissuade other nations from joining the court, which began its deliberations in 2002 and now has 120 countries onboard.

But while Prosper vigorously defended the administration's posture toward the ICC, its detention policies were another matter. In fact, Prosper says that at the same time Vice President Cheney was secretly ramming through a 2001 executive order that gave U.S. military tribunals the power to try detainees with little semblance of due process, he and other administration officials were trying to formulate a more balanced policy. But those efforts went nowhere, and it wasn't until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the tribunals (Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 548 U.S. 557 (2006)) that the administration pursued a different course.

Weary of government service, Prosper left the State Department just as Bush was beginning his second term. Before his departure, though, he led the effort to get more than 500 detainees out of Guantánamo, roughly half of whom were freed shortly after returning home.

Once Prosper got back to California, he toyed with the idea of running for public office, briefly setting his sights on the 2006 Republican primary for state attorney general. But in the end he thought better of it, and decided instead to enter private practice.

When he's not traveling abroad, Prosper flies back and forth between his office in Los Angeles and his home in Salt Lake City, where he lives with his four-year-old daughter and his wife, Laura, a university administrator. This winter he finished a four-year term on the United Nations' Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which has held hearings on topics ranging from Iran's treatment of ethnic minorities to France's policies on gypsies. He's also now an advisor to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and confides that he wouldn't rule out a return to government service if Romney wins the White House.

To appreciate the challenges that Prosper faces as he tries to save Amir Hekmati in Iran, it helps to understand what he went through to secure the release of Reza Taghavi. An Orange County multimillionaire who ran a successful video company with his son, Taghavi had been to Iran many times. But just before his visit in April of 2008 a Los Angeles friend gave him $200 to pass along to someone he knew in the Islamic Republic who was "down on his luck." Two weeks later, after handing the money over as requested, Taghavi was arrested for giving financial support to a monarchist group known as Tondar, which was thought to be responsible for the bombing of a mosque in the Iranian city of Shiraz. Taghavi strongly denied any ties to Tondar, and said he was merely passing the money along as a favor.

Initially, Taghavi's family hoped that an Iranian court would quickly dismiss the charge. But when a year went by with little progress, they contacted Prosper, who agreed to take the case largely without pay. Early on Prosper advised the family to stop making angry comments to the press. He then arranged several meetings with officials in Tehran, and eventually realized that what the Iranians wanted most was a chance to draw international attention to their own problems with domestic terrorism. As one Iranian official complained: "When America is attacked on 9/11, the world weeps. When the bombs go off here killing women and children, not a word."

"Terrorism is terrorism," Prosper responded. "It should be condemned wherever it occurs."

Finally in the fall of 2010, after 14 months of negotiations, Prosper struck a deal: He would accompany Taghavi to the site of the mosque bombing, where the businessman would express condolences and publicly condemn Tondar, and then Taghavi would be free to go home.

Now, nearly two years later, Amir Hekmati languishes in an Iranian jail.

As the American-born son of Iranian immigrants, Hekmati speaks both Farsi and English, and after joining the Marine Corps in 2001 he learned Arabic as well. He served as a translator in Iraq in 2004, then left the Marines the following year. He worked until last June as a civilian contractor developing military language systems and software with several different companies. Last summer he was visiting with grandparents in Iran when the authorities arrested him for espionage.

Iranian officials maintain that their captive's official work history is a CIA cover, yet they nevertheless make much of the fact that one of the companies mentioned on his résumé created a video war game called "Assault on Iran." In December the government released a video tape of Hekmati confessing that he was a CIA spy - an admission that his family insists was coerced.

As Prosper continued his efforts, he achieved one small breakthrough this winter when he managed to persuade Iranian officials to let Hekmati's mother visit her son. Then in early March came word that the Iranian Supreme Court had decided to overturn Hekmati's death sentence, setting the stage for a retrial. According to the Iranian Students' News Agency, the state prosecutor had found shortcomings in the case. The decision was also widely interpreted as an attempt by Iran to defuse tensions with the United States.

Prosper acknowledges that the Supreme Court's announcement is a "very positive development," but adds that it's still far from clear exactly what it will take for the Iranians to let Hekmati go.

Soon there will be another call from the family. And even though they won't ask him directly, in their every word Prosper will hear a familiar refrain: Are you going to win?

He wishes he could be sure.

Edward Humes, based in Southern California, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of twelve nonfiction books.

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