WASHINGTON (CN) – Five days after Iran freed her husband in a prisoner deal that included Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, Naghmeh Panahi filed to divorce Saeed Abedini, a prominent Iranian-American Christian pastor, over allegations of abuse.
Now suing Iran for millions in damages, Abedini told a federal judge on Friday during an emotional testimony that his ex-wife was manipulated by the Iranian government to destroy his reputation. A psychologist who also took the stand in a similar case brought by Rezaian testified in district court in D.C. that Abedini is suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
The charges of abuse arose prior to Abedini’s captivity in Iran, when in 2007 he served a suspended sentence of 90 days in jail followed by a year’s probation for misdemeanor domestic assault.
Abedini testified Friday that prior to his imprisonment his wife engaged in self-harm, attempted to commit suicide and refused to take medication prescribed for schizophrenia. He also said she made threatening phone calls to him in Iranian prison.
Panahi advocated fiercely for her husband’s freedom during the more than three years he spent in an Iranian jail cell, subjected to torture and solitary confinement. Her lawyer, Nixon Daniel, told Courthouse News Friday that the suffering Abedini endured at the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard now manifests in paranoia and the claims he made about his wife to U.S. District Judge James Boasberg were “categorically untrue.”
Downplaying the allegations of physical, emotional and spiritual abuse, Abedini said churches in the U.S. no longer offer him speaking engagements because of the fallout from his failed marriage. He recognized his relationship with Panahi was flawed but said he had tried prior to his imprisonment to seek help from medical experts and religious leaders.
Now 39-years-old, Abedini testified that he has avoided renting an apartment and traveled extensively in the years following his release in 2016 to avoid the Iranian government learning of his whereabouts. When asked by Boasberg if he ever plans to work again, Abedini said he does not know what the future holds.
He also testified to his continued physical suffering. Just last week he was hospitalized for internal bleeding caused by prison beatings.
“They said to me ‘You look like an 80 year-old man’ from sleeping on a prison floor for years,” Abedini said.
Representing Panahi in the lawsuit she now separately brings against Iran for the harm brought upon her and her two minor children, Daniel said his client was further endangering her family when she campaigned for Abedini’s release. Panahi received threatening phone calls, Daniel said, and hired security guards to accompany her to speaking engagements.
Judge Boasberg, who recognized that Abedini testified Friday on a “horrific experience,” asked why Abedini did not admit under torture that he was an American spy as Iran alleged.
“Because I wasn’t,” Abedini said. “I couldn’t lie.”
He then reiterated that having never worked for the U.S. government, his imprisonment was directly linked to his leadership of over 200 Christian churches in homes across Iran.
Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychologist who evaluated both Abedini and Rezaian, said the pastor while in solitary confinement suffered from the common symptom of an inability to maintain a state of awareness.
“There you are flooded with memories and at the same time you can’t really think,” Grassian said. “It’s a nightmare.”