A Princeton University graduate student and University of Washington alumnus has been released from prison in Iran, where he was held for three years on espionage charges, and flown out of the country, officials said early Saturday.
Xiyue Wang was arrested in August 2016 while he was conducting research for his doctoral dissertation and sent to the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran, where many political prisoners are held. In 2017 he was sentenced to 10 years in prison after he was convicted of spying.
Officials said Wang was freed as part of a prisoner exchange in which the United States released an Iranian biologist who was nearing the end of his sentence.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States was “pleased that Tehran has been constructive in this matter” and thanked the Swiss government for facilitating Wang’s return.
“The United States will not rest until we bring every American detained in Iran and around the world back home to their loved ones,” Pompeo said in a statement.
Negotiations between Iran and the United States, which do not have diplomatic relations, were mediated by the Swiss Embassy in Tehran. Switzerland represents U.S. interests in Iran.
Talks for Wang’s release began under Robert O’Brien, the State Department’s former hostage envoy. Brian Hook, the special envoy for Iran, took over after O’Brien left for the White House to become national security adviser.
Hook left Washington on Friday night to be in Switzerland to oversee the handover. He was accompanying Wang to Germany, where physicians at a U.S. military base will check his physical condition.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif confirmed that Massoud Soleimani, an Iranian scientist, was released in the exchange. Soleimani was arrested in 2018 when he arrived in Chicago en route to a visiting scholar position at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
“Glad that Professor Massoud Soleimani and Mr. Xiyue Wang will be joining their families shortly. Many thanks to all engaged, particularly the Swiss government,” he said in a tweet.
Wang’s wife, Hua Qu, expressed gratitude for “to everyone who helped make this happen.”
“Our family is complete once again. Our son Shaofan and I have waited three long years for this day and it’s hard to express in words how excited we are to be reunited with Xiyue,” she said in a statement.
The UW had hosted at least two rallies over the past two years calling for Wang’s release and Washington’s Democratic members of Congress wrote to President Donald Trump earlier this year urging him to prioritize Wang’s release. Wang’s mother lives in Seattle.
“Today is a glorious day for Xiyue’s family,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, said in a prepared statement. “I send them strength, love and perseverance as they begin to heal from this horrific ordeal.”
Princeton University, academics from around the country and the State Department insisted Wang’s conviction was unjust. U.S. officials have accused Iran of keeping him as a bargaining chip to obtain freedom for Iranian prisoners held in U.S. jails and perhaps as leverage to get an easing of U.S. sanctions that have devastated the economy.
“He is simply a bookish historian who traveled to Iran for research in 2016 and became swept up in the escalating tensions between the United States and Iran,” wrote Teresa Davis, a fellow at Emory University, in a Washington Post opinion essay.
Iran has arrested a number of foreigners on charges their governments consider groundless, leading some critics to say Iran has developed a hostage-taking industry as part of its foreign policy.
At least five other Americans are known to be imprisoned or missing in Iran. There are almost certainly more, but the exact number is not publicly known, in part because their families have been reluctant to publicize the cases for fear of angering Iranian authorities.
Siamak Namazi, an Iranian American businessman, has been detained for five years. His elderly father, Baquer, a former UNICEF official, was arrested when he went to Iran four months after his son’s arrest to try to obtain his release. Babak Namazi, Siamak’s brother, has said he fears his father will die if he is not allowed to leave Iran to be treated for his ailments that have been aggravated by his ordeal.
Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, disappeared while on a visit to Iran in 2007. His family has not heard a word from him for years. But Iranian officials recently acknowledged having an open court case on Levinson, suggesting he is still alive and in custody more than 12 years after he was last seen.
Michael White, a Navy veteran, was arrested in 2018 while visiting his girlfriend in Iran, and was later sentenced to 10 years in prison for insulting Iran’s supreme leader and posting a private photograph publicly.
Morad Tahbaz, environmental activist with citizenship from the United States, Iran and Britain, was working with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation doing research on Iran’s endangered cheetah population when he and several other environmentalists were arrested last year and accused of espionage. Tahbaz was sentenced in November to 10 years in prison.
Seattle Times staff contributed to this report.