Former hostage still suffers from captivity in Iran

URBANA – Watching British captives freed from Iran, Paul Lewis can't help remembering his 444 days in captivity. Even if his mind let it go, the nerve damage to his shoulders and wrists would remind him.

Having his arms handcuffed behind his back for more than a day at a time has caused damage he's still being treated for, and prison dysentery still gives him stomach troubles.

The Homer native, now 49, was a young Marine who had just arrived in Tehran in November 1979, when Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy, taking 66 people captive. Thirteen were released later that month, and one more the following July. But Lewis and 51 others were held until early 1981.

The hostages have also been in the news recently because there's a House bill, HR394, trying to win belated reparations for their suffering. Among the cosponsors is U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana.

Also in the news: Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom Lewis remembers from his captivity in Tehran. Given 444 long days to memorize faces, the Marine guard recalls Ahmadinejad as one of the bit players in his ordeal, a Revolutionary Guard who visited the prisoners as part of a VIP show.

"There's no doubt in my mind," Lewis said, that the future president was part of that VIP group.

Lewis was at work in his Urbana financial services office in June 2005 when he took a break to do some Iran research and learned from the Internet that a new president had been elected.

He clicked on the story and a photo popped up. "The hair rose on the back of my neck," Lewis said, seeing a surprisingly familiar photo.

Ahmadinejad bragged he "knew how to deal with Americans" in a recent book, Lewis said.

The former hostage has made a habit of following Iranian politics and says researchers "can find Iranian fingerprints on a lot of things," including the Beirut barracks explosion that killed his brother-in-law, Cpl. Joel Livingston, in 1983.

He finds it sad that 24 years after that terrorist attack, and even six years after 9/11, Americans in general have a poor understanding of world cultures and the U.S. intelligence community in specific knows so little about the Muslim and Arabic world.

The U.S. needs to train Arabic speakers and acquire Arabs or Arab-Americans as operatives, he said.

"You or I might get into the IRA, but we'd never pass for Hamas," he said.

As for the reparations bill, which hopes to free up money from a successful lawsuit against Iran, the government Lewis served is the obstacle.

"All we're asking the government to do is get out of the way," Lewis said.

The Algiers Accords, signed Jan. 19, 1981, freed the hostages.

But they committed the U.S. to keeping out of Iran's internal politics, and unfroze $8 billion of seized Iranian assets.

In 2001, a federal court entered a default judgment against Iran after certifying the reparations case as a class action, but the State Department moved to vacate the decision.

"I can't help thinking my well-being is not a top priority," Lewis said, both of his experiences as a hostage and in the years since.

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