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Behind The Scenes: One Story From The Prison Swap With Iran

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now we're going to hear one of the stories from inside the historic prisoner swap between the U.S. and Iran. This story unfolded in Texas, where a businessman and his lawyer were swept up in the negotiations. The businessman was one of the seven Iranians in jail in the U.S. who had been offered clemency by President Obama. NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: In a Houston detention center, lawyer Joel Androphy waited for hours for his client to be released. Bahram Mekanik, a 69-year-old Iranian-American businessman, had spent nine months in jail. Now he was part of a high-stakes international prisoner swap. Androphy had kept this secret for months. Saturday, U.S. officials told him to get to the jail at 5 a.m. The deal was on, but it would take hours.

JOEL ANDROPHY: It became a joke in the prison because we were - every 10 minutes, we were told it could happen in 10 minutes. We almost all went out and got t-shirts saying 10 more minutes because it 10 minutes, every 10 minutes, for 14 hours.

AMOS: The delay was in Tehran. The release in Houston was held up until a plane with U.S. prisoners left Iranian airspace. It was the conclusion of a secret deal. It began two months earlier. An Iranian official from Washington asked for a meeting with a lawyer and his client. Would they be interested in being part of a prisoner swap?

ANDROPHY: Nobody had really finalized anything, and they were in discussions, but it clearly was understood that Bahram Mekanik was part of the deal.

AMOS: Mekanik had run his business from Houston for more than 30 years. He became a U.S. citizen. He was arrested nine months ago, and charged with shipping electronic equipment to Iran. Mekanik became part of a group of seven released on Saturday. Iranian officials wanted a larger group, but American officials insisted there would be no clemency for anyone who faced charges of violent crimes or convicted of terrorism. From his home in Houston, in an interview on Skype, Androphy insists his client did nothing wrong. The arrest was due to the tense U.S. relations with Iran.

ANDROPHY: You know, he's nothing for the United States to give up. He's not a risk of anything. He's a good citizen of Houston and the United States, and he helps employ a lot of people in our community. We're not giving Iran anything. We're giving back to the people of the United States somebody that's innocent.

AMOS: A presidential pardon makes that official, unusual in a case that hadn't yet come to trial. Late Saturday, in a Texas jail, the warden handed over the presidential pardon.

ANDROPHY: He was a first-class warden, nothing like you would see on TV, and he basically told our clients that - to enjoy the rest of their life, and God be with you.

AMOS: Androphy bristles at criticism of a secret deal that ended with the release of people that the U.S. said had been unjustly jailed in Iran, including reporter Jason Rezaian, a Christian cleric and a Marine. He says the seven released in the U.S. will stay in the U.S., including his client, Bahram Mekanik.

ANDROPHY: It sounds like a win-win deal. So it's an exchange of innocence for innocence.

AMOS: He says Mekanik will be back at work in Houston in a few weeks. Deborah Amos, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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