STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: We have messages this morning from Americans imprisoned in Iran. At least five U.S. citizens are in Iranian custody. Some are allowed to call home, and we've been learning some of what they say. For one of those prisoners, a grim anniversary passed just this month.
What was the date of your brother's detention?
BABAK NAMAZI: My brother was taken on October 13, 2015
INSKEEP: Babak Namazi's brother is Siamak Namazi. He's an Iranian American businessman who traveled in and out of Iran until his detention.
You must have had no idea, even when you first heard the news, that you would still be in this situation four years later.
NAMAZI: Even in my worst nightmare, Steve, I could not imagine that four years later, I'd be discussing the plight of not just my brother but my innocent 83-year-old father, as well, who's doing really, really poorly from a health perspective.
INSKEEP: His father was arrested after his brother. Baquer Namazi is also a U.S. citizen who traveled in and out of Iran. Both were imprisoned for, quote, "collaborating with a foreign government," though their trials were secret. They were imprisoned back when U.S. relations with Iran were improving. They remain in Iran as relations have grown worse.
The father is now out on medical release but still not allowed to leave the country. Siamak remains in Evin Prison on a mountainside at the northern edge of Tehran. His brother Babak says he is sporadically able to place a call.
NAMAZI: He is in a very dark place. And I try as - to the best of my ability to shed some light and meaningful light.
INSKEEP: What does he say to you?
NAMAZI: Get me out of here.
INSKEEP: In what way, if at all, does he described the conditions in which he's being held?
NAMAZI: I mean, it's - he's been held in various conditions. He's gone from situations where he was held in solitary confinement for very, very long periods - you know, months and months and months where he was in a dark room - no bed to sleep on, no warm blankets, where he was beaten, where he was tased, where he was completely isolated - so you know, to, relatively speaking, better conditions, where he's not physically abused anymore.
INSKEEP: The things you just described - being beaten, isolated and tased - do you know that from people who have visited him, or has he actually spoken directly to you about those things over the phone?
NAMAZI: I've heard about it both ways.
INSKEEP: OK. I'm just thinking - I mean, I've called people in Iran. I've called people in the United States from Iran. Sometimes on a phone line from Iran, the signal is excellent and it sounds like the person is right by your ear. And sometimes it sounds like they're a million miles away.
NAMAZI: I think, for me, it always feels like they're a million miles away. Irrespective of the quality of the phone conversation, that's a reality for me.
INSKEEP: And yet Babak Namazi says his imprisoned brother tries to cheer him up. When Iranian leaders visited the United Nations last month, Babak went. He wasn't able to meet Iranian diplomats but did gather with families of other detainees. They, too, get phone calls from Iran.
Hua Qu has received them since 2016. She lives in Princeton, N.J. Her husband was a Princeton doctoral student researching Persian history inside Iranian archives. Qu and her husband, Xiyue Wang, were natives of China and parents of a toddler. The first calls from Iran in 2016 were happy family reunions with a free man.
HUA QU: We're on video chat almost all the time. And I...
INSKEEP: Oh - so you saw where he was living probably.
QU: Yeah, he lived with a Chinese couple. They rented room to him.
INSKEEP: Xiyue Wang appeared inside his rented room in Tehran.
And you'd bring him on the screen. And I'm sure your son would...
QU: Yes. I mean, other than the time that he is in the archive, we're on video chat, on FaceTime all the time.
INSKEEP: The calls changed in the summer of 2016. Her husband said Iranian authorities had taken his passport so he couldn't leave. He was mysteriously under investigation. In August, it seemed that he would be allowed to come home, but then her husband vanished. The U.S. government learned he had been detained.
QU: But I still didn't hear from them until 20 days later. Then I suddenly received a strange phone call coming from a strange unshown (ph) number. But he cried to me that he just came out of solitary confinement and that they forced him to confess. He was so, so scared. And he - and then I think he called his father in Beijing and to - it was just heartbroken, that day to me.
INSKEEP: What was his voice like?
QU: He cannot even make a sentence. He just crying and said they asked him to confess. But they told him - if you don't confess, you can never come out of the solitary confinement. And that they - and he seen people making marks on the wall of the very narrow space. And there are, like, over 300 marks on the - which means people spend there for over a year in that solitary space. So he was very, very terrified.
INSKEEP: Apparently, on the basis of that confession, an Iranian court convicted him of spying for the United States.
QU: And after his trial, he can call me couple of times a week - after his, I mean, trial concluded.
INSKEEP: These calls are just voice calls - no more video chats. They've gone on long enough that the couple's toddler is now age 6, old enough to hold a conversation.
QU: Recently, he started talking to his father. And - but it's very difficult for him because his father has not been around for three years. He has little memory about the time we spent together when he was little and he's riding on my husband's shoulder from school. He really don't remember anything anymore.
INSKEEP: Do you look at your son's face and see his father sometimes?
QU: Yes. They carry the same big, like, smile and eyebrows - very, yeah, beautiful eyebrow.
INSKEEP: When's your next phone call?
QU: He actually called me today. And he told me that there is a courtyard that he - they can spend an hour to have some natural light there, I mean, under the high walls. And in distance, he can see the national flag of Iran. It's all bare and empty. It's just people walk in that small space, round and round.
INSKEEP: Hua Qu doesn't know how long the calls will go on. Her husband, Xiyue Wang, one of several U.S. citizens imprisoned in Iran, has seven years remaining in his sentence. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.