Deeply disturbing news: regardless of whether there’s any truth to these accusations, the idea that developing a game could lead to a man’s death is simply horrific. One of the developers of the infamous and oft-criticised Kuma/War series – which regularly releases game recreations of real-life, contemporary military conflicts, most recently the last stand of Gaddafi – has been sentenced to death in Iran. He’s charged with espionage, and with being paid by the CIA to create pro-US propaganda in the guise of videogames.
Amir Mizra Hekmati is an Iranian-American, holding passports in both nations, and found himself arrested when visiting family in Iran recently. The local authorities claim Hekmati has confessed to receiving CIA money to “design and distribute for free special movies and games with the aim of manipulating public opinion in the Middle East.” This, according to Iran and the purported confession, is the true aim of the free-to-play Kuma/War games. “The goal of the company in question was to convince the people of Iran and the people of the entire world that whatever the U.S. does in other countries is a good measure.”
One Kuma/War episode was entitled “Assault on Iran,” and documented a theoretical US military attempt to shut down the country’s burgeoning nuclear capabilities. Kuma boss Keith Halper told Gamasutra that this episode received thousands of downloads in Iran, and was attacked in an Ayatollah-controlled newspaper as revealing possible US policy. Iran’s nuclear program is of course a source of major fears in the West and Israel, but Iran has so far been unwilling to back down. The country claims its nuclear energy is intended for civilian use only, but watchdogs believe the country is now trialling nuclear enrichment at levels far beyond what would be required for power alone.
It probably doesn’t help that Kuma have publicly acknowledged they’ve provided software for the US army in the past (update – and Kotaku has ascertained that this was language-learning software, rather than anything military) – though Kuma/War is a separate, consumer endeavour that, so far as we know, receives no government or military funding. Iran believes otherwise, though no evidence to support this has been provided beyond Hekmati’s apparent confession.
Hekmati also claimed on Iranian state television that he had been sent to Iran’s Intelligence Agency on an infiltration mission by the CIA. The White House denies that Hekmati is any kind of US agent, with the National Security Council’s Tommy Vietor telling the New York Times that “The Iranian regime has a history of falsely accusing people of being spies, of eliciting forced confessions, and of holding innocent Americans for political reasons.”
Iran’s Revolutionary Court has found Hekmati guilty of being “Corrupt on Earth and Mohareb (waging war on God)” – a sentence which carries the death penalty. You can read extracts from his alleged confession here, including some rather oddly-worded praise for Iran’s security forces. Hekmati was formerly a member of the US marines, served in Iraq and did indeed receive espionage training. The New York Times suggest his arrest is perhaps more to do with Iran seeking leverage to expand its nuclear efforts, fearing that the US and Israel are increasingly likely to intervene with sanctions and, in the latter’s case, military actions. Talks between the two sides are due in Turkey soon; it is possible Iran is seeking all the capital it can gain to support its desire to continue nuclear expansion.
Given Hekmati’s background, the truth may well be even more complicated than it appears – but it’s very hard not to fear that the accusations are trumped up and he was forced into an untrue confession. His shocked parents claim, on a newly-created support website for their son, that ““His very life is being exploited for political gain.” Let’s hope someone is able to prevent the sentence from being carried out, get Hekmati back home safely and then go on to ascertain the full truth. The New York Times believes it’s unlikely the execution will come to pass if the case’s true intentions are to aid nuclear negotiations – but if it does, it would happen within the next 20 days.