BY HANK REICHMAN
Earlier this week word arrived that Princeton University history graduate student Xiyue Wang, sentenced in July by the Iranian government to ten years in prison for alleged espionage, is being transferred from general detention to Ward 7, a more extreme prison unit run by Iran’s intelligence agency. When Wang arrived there, his life was immediately threatened by a Taliban inmate who was previously imprisoned by the U.S. at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan. When Wang was in Unit 7 earlier this year, this same prisoner badly beat him. In a December 5 letter to supporters Hua Qu, Wang’s wife, wrote, “We think it’s quite clear the Intelligence Agency is trying to mentally torture him; this is unconscionable treatment of an innocent father and student.” The couple has a four-year-old son.
Wang, a Chinese-born naturalized U.S.citizen who previously worked as a translator in Central Asia, was conducting doctoral research on Iran’s Qajar dynasty that ruled from 1785 to 1925 when he was arrested in Tehran on August 8, 2016 for spying on behalf of the U.S. amid the detention of others with Western ties. The government charged that he had digitally archived 4,500 pages of Iranian documents and had done “super confidential research for the U.S. Department of State, Harvard Kennedy School and British Institute of Persian Studies.” The day Iranian authorities came for him, Wang called Qu to tell her they were bringing him to the airport to take a flight home, she said. Instead, they put him in solitary confinement for 18 days.
His conditions have since improved, but Wang can “hardly stand” due to pain, Qu said, after sitting cross-legged all day in his cell despite arthritis in both knees, as well as back pains, rashes, and diarrhea. “He doesn’t have any treatment other than painkillers, which he takes for everything he’s got,” she said.
On November 26, Iranian television aired a video outlining the charges against Wang and featuring footage of him. It showed him wearing a white prisoner uniform while under interrogation. He explains that he visited several archives. “That’s it,” he is heard saying. “The more knowledge that the United States possess about Iran the better for its policy towards Iran,” he adds.
“I was shocked and I was extremely upset that my husband is misrepresented on Iran’s state television,” Hua Qu told NBC News. “He went to Iran with all the required approvals. He openly and honestly disclosed his interests in looking at the historical documents.” Qu said her husband wasn’t involved in spying or political activities and that the video misconstrued academic research as espionage. She said she believes the video is intended to pressure U.S. officials ahead of a December deadline for Congress to reimpose sanctions on Iran. “My husband is just an innocent student,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “This has nothing to do with the nuclear deal, this has nothing to do with the bigger political agenda between the two countries.”
“My young family should not be the bearer of the burden of ties between the U.S. and Iran. If President Trump and the White House don’t rescue him, there is nobody who can,” Qu told AFP. “They have promised many times it’s their first priority, to bring back our hostages,” she said. “We cannot wait forever.”
On November 28, a State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, condemned the video and reiterated the American demand for Iran to release all prisoners who are “unjustly detained, in particular American citizens.” Wang is one of seven U.S. citizens or permanent residents currently detained by Iran
“We strongly condemn Iran’s subjecting Mr. Wang and other prisoners to these forced video appearances,” Nauert added.
Earlier this month, Trump took credit for engineering the release of three UCLA basketball players held in China on suspicion of shoplifting, after raising the matter with Chinese President Xi Jinping. In July, Trump warned of “new and serious consequences” unless US nationals held in the Islamic republic were released, but critics say his hardline approach to Tehran has made things worse.
Still, the New York Times reports, “Nearly two years after a group of American captives in Iran was freed when the nuclear accord took effect — in return for the release of a group of Iranians held in the United States — there is speculation that another prisoner exchange may be sought. The Iranians have been dropping hints recently that they are prepared to make a deal, even as the Trump administration increasingly shows its antipathy to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his subordinates.” Added the Times, “The Iranians say at least 14 Iranians have been unfairly imprisoned or prosecuted by the United States or its allies, mostly on what they call specious accusations of sanctions violations. The list includes a friend of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and a pregnant woman held in Australia who could be extradited to the United States.”
In July, the AAUP joined with 32 other higher education organizations in a statement calling for Wang’s safe release and return home. “Scholars around the world engage every day in archival research in pursuit of historical knowledge. Mr. Wang’s imprisonment can only have a chilling effect on historical research and scholarly exchange in Iran and throughout the world, and this, in turn, can only lead to diminished understanding and greater mistrust, to the detriment of all,” the statement said.
Following the television broadcast Princeton issued the latest in a series of statements on the case. The statement stressed that Wang’s
dissertation topic was not suggested to him by Princeton, the U.S. government, or anyone else. He selected his own topic and areas of research. He has no connection to any government or intelligence agencies, and the charge that he was engaged in espionage is completely false. He studied the archival materials solely for his own research, and to our knowledge did not share them with anyone at Princeton or elsewhere.
Before traveling to Iran, Mr. Wang explained his research plan to the Iranian Interest Section at the Pakistani embassy in Washington, D.C., (which issued his visa) and to the libraries in Iran that he planned to visit. The Iranian Interest Section assisted him in gaining access to Iran’s National Archives. He was not involved in any political activities or social activism while he was in Iran; he was simply a scholar trying to gain access to historical records he needed for his dissertation.
As a private university, Princeton provided financial support for Mr. Wang’s research from funds that are entirely under its control and with no involvement of any kind by the U.S. government or any outside agencies. Some of the funding came from the University’s department of history and some from an interdisciplinary center whose mission is to serve as a non-political and non-governmental educational resource that supports scholarship on Iran and the Persian Gulf, including research into the history, literature, art and culture of the region, from ancient Iran to today.
Since Mr. Wang was detained, the University has been doing everything it can, day after day, to bring him home to his wife and young son, and to enable him to resume his scholarly work.
Wang’s advisor at Princeton, Professor Stephen Kotkin, said Wang came well-prepared for an extremely ambitious thesis topic. “He had tremendous background, life experiences, linguistic capabilities, and so he entered the program and hit the ground running and developed his interests even more,” Kotkin said. “Everything he did is normal — absolutely everything he did is normal, standard practice for scholars in this region and elsewhere.”
Wang’s arrest and conviction is an assault on the academic freedom of scholars in Iran and throughout the world. It calls for a forceful response. The Trump administration must exert all efforts to secure Wang’s safe release and his return home to New Jersey.
In this video Hua Qu speaks out eloquently for her husband’s release:
According to Qu, the couple’s son has struggled to understand the situation, now that his father has been absent for almost half his life. “He says to me, ‘I love my daddy, but now I just have Legos’,” Qu said.
December 31 will be Wang’s 38th birthday. Let us all work to ensure that he may celebrate it with his wife and young son.