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Report: Video game designer sentenced to death in Iran over propaganda charges

Report: Video game designer sentenced to death in Iran over propaganda charges

January 9, 2012 | By Eric Caoili

A U.S.-born video game designer has been sentenced to death in Iran over charges that the CIA paid him to create games to sway public opinions on U.S. policies.

Iranian-American Amir Mizra Hekmati allegedly confessed to spying on the country and designing propaganda games, according to the ruling from the Islamic Revolutionary Court.

After the former U.S. marine was detained while visiting Iran in August (supposedly to visit family), local daily newspaper Tehran Times published excerpts from a purported confession in which Hekmati admitted to helping create games designed to "manipulate public opinion in the Middle East" at New York City-based developer Kuma Reality Games, under the CIA's direction and payroll.

Hekmati allegedly said, "[Kuma] was receiving money from the CIA to (produce) and design and distribute for free special movies and games with the aim of manipulating public opinion in the Middle East. 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."

Along with various titles themed around dinosaurs, mobsters, and World War II, Kuma's catalog includes a free episodic first-person shooter set in the Middle East, featuring localizations in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu alongside English releases. Its Kuma\War series re-created scenarios in which players killed militant Islamist figures like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden.

The studio even released a Kuma\War episode titled "Assault on Iran," speculating on how the U.S. could respond to the country's nuclear weapons program. In the episode, players had to infiltrate an Iranian nuclear facility, "secure evidence of illegal uranium enrichment, rescue [their] man on the inside, and destroy the centrifuges that promise to take Iran into the nuclear age."

Kuma CEO Keith Halper previously told Gamasutra the release had an impact in Iran: "There were hundreds of thousands of downloads in Iran. We were denounced by name in the newspaper controlled by the supreme Ayatollah as a possible precursor to real US policy, which is absurd on the face of it, but speaks to the great power of real-time video games as a storytelling medium."

Halper also admitted to Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo in 2006 that his company has previously accepted contract work to develop training software for the U.S. army as a side project. However, he did not state that the developer is bankrolled by the CIA or any other U.S. government organization to produce the Kuma\War series or other titles that Kuma released for consumers.

In addition to his confession that was published by Tehran Times, Hekmati appeared on Iranian state television in December and claimed to have been sent to the country by the CIA. He said his mission was to infiltrate Iran's intelligence ministry by providing them with information, gain their trust, and eventually report his findings to the U.S.'s own intelligence agency.

Iranian news agency Fars reported that the Revolutionary Court, which specializes in trying those accused of attempting to overthrow the country's government, found Hekmati "Corrupt on Earth and Mohareb (waging war on God)." The New York Times says the ruling "is routinely used in cases against alleged enemies of the Islamic Republic, and the charge carries the death sentence."

"Allegations that Mr. Hekmati either worked for, or was sent to Iran by the CIA are false," said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council. "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."

The White House is demanding Hekmati's release, and has called on the Iranian government to grant him access to legal counsel via diplomats from the Swiss Embassy, which represents the U.S.'s interests in Iran.

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