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U.S. refuses to discuss Iranian TV anchorwoman's detention

An undated photo published online by Iran's state-run English language TV network Press TV shows its news anchor, Marzieh Hashemi, born Melanie Franklin of New Orleans, whom the network said on Jan. 16, 2019, was detained in the U.S. Press TV

The U.S. Justice Department and the FBI continued on Thursday to refuse comment on the alleged detention of an American woman who has worked for years as an anchorwoman on Iran's state-run television. Marzieh Hashemi was arrested by the FBI during a visit to the U.S. on Sunday, Iran's English-language broadcaster Press TV reported Wednesday. Her son has said she is being held in a prison, apparently as a material witness.

Hashemi was detained in St. Louis, where she had filmed a Black Lives Matter documentary after visiting relatives in the New Orleans area. She was then taken to Washington, according to her elder son, Hossein Hashemi.

Contacted by CBS News, both the FBI and the Justice Department have declined to comment on the case. 

Hashemi, 58, was born Melanie Franklin in New Orleans but has worked for Iran's state TV network for 25 years now.

Hossein Hashemi told The Associated Press that his mother lives in Tehran, the capital of Iran, and comes back to this country about once a year to see her family, usually scheduling documentary work somewhere in the U.S. as well.

"No idea what's going on"

"We still have no idea what's going on," said Hossein Hashemi, a research fellow at the University of Colorado whom the AP interviewed by phone from Washington. He also said he and his siblings had been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury.

The incident comes as Iran faces increasing criticism of its own arrests of dual citizens and other people with Western ties. Those cases have previously been used as bargaining chips in negotiations with world powers.

Federal law allows judges to order witnesses to be arrested and detained if the government can prove their testimony has extraordinary value for a criminal case and that they would be a flight risk and unlikely to respond to a subpoena. The statute generally requires those witnesses to be promptly released once they are deposed, however.

She apparently was unable to call her daughter until Tuesday night. The family is trying to hire an attorney, but it has been difficult because she has not been charged with a crime, her son said.

Hashemi's detention and the material witness law

Hashemi, an American citizen, had not been contacted by the FBI before she was detained and would "absolutely" have been willing to cooperate with the agency, her son said.

Asked whether his mother had been involved in any criminal activity or knew anyone who might be implicated in a crime, Hossein Hashemi said, "We don't have any information along those lines."

Iran US Journalist Detained
Hossein Hashemi, from Denver, son of American-born news anchor Marzieh Hashemi, who works for Iranian state television, speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Washington, Jan. 16, 2019.  AP

Hashemi said his mother was arrested as she was about to board a flight from St. Louis to Denver. A spokesman for St. Louis Lambert International Airport declined to comment and referred questions to the FBI.

The constitutionality of the material witness law has "never been meaningfully tested," said Ricardo J. Bascuas, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law. "The government only relies on it when they need a reason to arrest somebody but they don't have one."

No matter the reason for Marzieh Hashemi's detention, she should have been granted a court appearance by now, Bascuas said.

Iran uses case to blast U.S. justice

Iran's state broadcaster held a news conference and launched a hashtag campaign for Hashemi, using the same techniques families with loved ones held in the Islamic Republic use to highlight their cases.

"We will not spare any legal action" to help her, said Paiman Jebeli, deputy chief of Iran's state IRIB broadcaster. Iran's Press TV aired footage of her anchoring news programs and discussing the war in Syria, set to dramatic music.

There were no references to any case against Hashemi in U.S. federal courts, nor in Missouri.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi told state TV that Hashemi's arrest showed the "apartheid and racist policy" of the Trump administration. "We hope that the innocent person will be released without any condition," he said.

Americans held in Iran

At least four American citizens are being held in Iran, including Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran whose detention was only confirmed last month. Also held are Iranian-American Siamak Namazi and his 82-year-old father, Baquer, both serving 10-year sentences on espionage charges.

Former prisoner sheds light on Iran's detention of U.S. veteran Michael White 03:40

Iranian-American art dealer Karan Vafadari and his Iranian wife, Afarin Neyssari, received 27-year and 16-year prison sentences, respectively. Chinese-American graduate student Xiyue Wang was sentenced to 10 year in prison.

Also in an Iranian prison is Nizar Zakka, a permanent U.S. resident from Lebanon who advocated for internet freedom and has done work for the U.S. government. He was sentenced to 10 years on espionage-related charges.

Former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran in 2007 while on an unauthorized CIA mission, remains missing as well. Iran says that Levinson is not in the country and that it has no further information about him. His family holds Tehran responsible for his disappearance.

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