An American grad student who had been held in an Iranian prison for at least three years was finally headed home Saturday after a prisoner swap between the two nations.
Xiyue Wang, 38, was released in Switzerland in exchange for Iranian citizen Massoud Soleimani, who was being held at an Atlanta prison over accusations that he violated U.S. sanctions.
“We thank our Swiss partners for their assistance in negotiating Mr. Wang’s release with Iran,” said President Donald Trump in a statement confirming the information.
“The highest priority of the United States is the safety and well-being of its citizens. Freeing Americans held captive is of vital importance to my Administration, and we will continue to work hard to bring home all our citizens wrongfully held captive overseas.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif submitted on Twitter early Saturday before the swap, and after it had been confirmed.
Wang is a Chinese-born naturalized American citizen and a fourth-year doctoral student of history at Princeton University.
He was arrested in August 2016 while carrying out research on Iran’s Qajar dynasty for his Ph.D., according to the university, his spouse and the U.S. government.
He was convicted of two counts of espionage in April 2017 and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. He was held in Evin Prison, the Tehran centre that houses the majority of the nation’s political prisoners.
Iran published video in November 2017 of Wang allegedly attempting to smuggle documents. Then-State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert explicitly denied Wang was working on behalf of any U.S. government agency.
The U.S. had repeatedly called for his release. In his announcement Saturday, Trump said he “had been held under the pretense of espionage.”
His spouse, Qu Hua, had worked with Princeton attempting to win his release. She told NBC News in November 2017 that Wang was fighting with depression in prison.
He was also missing out on watching their son grow up, she said, having last seen the boy when he was just two years old.
“My son told his teacher that, ‘When I grow up, my daddy will come home.'”
Following the news he would do just that this weekend, Qu said in a statement that “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. We are thankful to everyone who helped make this happen,” she explained.
Wang’s attorney also celebrated the information, urging both countries to “keep open a pathway.”
A Senior Administration Official confirmed to NBC News that Wang was flown from Tehran to Zurich, where he was met by U.S. Special Representative Brian Hook. Hook then accompanied Wang to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. He’ll undergo additional evaluation at a community medical center before going home.
Wang was one of at least four other Americans being held by Iran, including Iranian-American dad and son Siamak and Baquer Namazi, navy veteran Michael White and former FBI agent Robert Levinson.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saturday that “The United States will not rest until we bring every American detained in Iran and around the world back home to their loved ones.”
“We thank the Swiss government for facilitating the return of Mr. Wang,” Pompeo added,”and are pleased that Tehran has been constructive in this issue. “”We continue to call for the release of U.S. citizens unjustly detained in Iran.”
Wang’s liberty came in exchange for Soleimani, a medical research scientist who had been detained in October 2018. The U.S. accused Soleimani of violating sanctions against Iran by trying to export biological substances in the kind of human growth hormone without consent.
The swap comes amid rising tensions between Iran and the U.S. and its allies in the Gulf.
The Pentagon said Thursday that the U.S. was formulating strategies to possibly deploy more U.S. troops into the Middle East in response to an increasing threat from Tehran.
Crushing sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump last year after the U.S. withdrawal from Tehran’s atomic deal with world powers have left Iran facing widespread economic discontent.
Demonstrations erupted across the country lately in response to some 50 percent increase in gas rates. U.S. officials, together with human rights groups, said as many as 1,000 Iranians were killed and tens of thousands more imprisoned since the protests started on Nov. 15.
Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, known as the casualty numbers “purely speculative and highly inaccurate,” while incorporating an investigation to the “disturbances” and “those affected, whether injured or killed” was continuing.
Trump weighed in about the protests Tuesday, saying in a tweet which “America supports the brave people of Iran who are protesting for their freedom.”