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Features

From Vakilabad Prison to Disneyland: Michael White Speaks from Zurich Airport

June 5, 2020
Niloufar Rostami
6 min read
Michael White, an American prisoner in Iran, was released on June 4, 2020
Michael White, an American prisoner in Iran, was released on June 4, 2020
His release comes a day after the return of Cyrus Asghari, who was in US prisons for three years
His release comes a day after the return of Cyrus Asghari, who was in US prisons for three years
"The speculation about Mr. Asghari's exchange with another person is not true, and his release was based on an acquittal," said Abbas Mousavi, a spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry.
"The speculation about Mr. Asghari's exchange with another person is not true, and his release was based on an acquittal," said Abbas Mousavi, a spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry.
US President Donald Trump, tweeting a few hours ago, thanked Iran for releasing Michael White and wrote that with his release Iran has shown it is possible to reach an agreement.
US President Donald Trump, tweeting a few hours ago, thanked Iran for releasing Michael White and wrote that with his release Iran has shown it is possible to reach an agreement.
Trump had said that he had spoken to Michael White once White had arrived in Zurich, Switzerland.
Trump had said that he had spoken to Michael White once White had arrived in Zurich, Switzerland.
"I would like to personally thank Mr. Trump for his efforts to release me and for trying to rebuild a good America," Mr. White said.
"I would like to personally thank Mr. Trump for his efforts to release me and for trying to rebuild a good America," Mr. White said.
Asked by a Fox News reporter what his physical condition was, he said: "I'm getting better. I contracted the coronavirus at Mashhad Central Prison and then went on leave. But I recovered."
Asked by a Fox News reporter what his physical condition was, he said: "I'm getting better. I contracted the coronavirus at Mashhad Central Prison and then went on leave. But I recovered."
"This could happen to all prisoners," Zarif tweeted, confirming the release of Michael White and Matteo Taerri. "We should not cherry-pick them."
"This could happen to all prisoners," Zarif tweeted, confirming the release of Michael White and Matteo Taerri. "We should not cherry-pick them."
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also took to Twitter to express his satisfaction with the publication of Michael White's interview in Zurich, saying that he was with the president when he spoke to M
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also took to Twitter to express his satisfaction with the publication of Michael White's interview in Zurich, saying that he was with the president when he spoke to M
Michael White is on his way home, but there are still two other dual nationals who have been jailed for years. Siamak and Baqer Namazi have each been sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Michael White is on his way home, but there are still two other dual nationals who have been jailed for years. Siamak and Baqer Namazi have each been sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Michael White, a 47-year-old American prisoner and former sailor in the United States Navy, who has been held by Iran’s government since July 2018, was released yesterday, 4 June.

White’s mother, Joanne White, said in a statement announcing the release of her son: "683 days ago, my son Michael was taken hostage by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards in Iran; I have been living in a nightmare ever since." 

"I'm glad to announce that the nightmare is over and my son is on his way home," she said.

Joanne White’s announcement pre-empted an announcement by Iran’s own authorities. The Tasnim News Agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, was the first outlet in Iran to report the release of Michael White, citing the Associated Press.

Tasnim reported that: "A journalist from a Western media outlet claimed ... that an American citizen imprisoned in Iran has been released and left Iran on a Swiss government plane."

The Associated Press, meanwhile, reported that Brian Hook, the US State Department's special envoy for Iran, had traveled to Zurich, accompanied by a doctor, and planned to return to the United States with Michael White.

His release came a day after the release and return to Iran of Cyrus Asghari, an Iranian citizen and scientist who had been imprisoned in the United States for three years. However, when news of Asghari’s release was published, Iranian authorities initially rejected the idea of a prison swap.

"The speculation about Mr. Asghari's exchange with another person is not true, and his release was based on an acquittal," said Abbas Mousavi, a spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry.

The New York Times, reporting on the release, also said US officials insisted there was no connection between the release of Michael White and Cyrus Asghari. This was despite a previous offer by Iranian officials, last month, to exchange Cyrus Asghari for Michael White.

Asghari, a professor at the Sharif University of Technology, returned to Iran on 3 June 2020. He had been accused of stealing classified business information in the US. But after a three-year trial, he was acquitted by a federal court and by an Appeals Court.

Another Iranian prisoner, Massoud Soleimani, who had been held in the United States on charges of circumventing US sanctions on Iran, had previously been exchanged for Jiao Wang, an American citizen held on "espionage" charges in Iran. The exchange prompted Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to suggest an exchange of all prisoners held by each country.

"This could happen to all prisoners," Zarif tweeted, confirming the release of Michael White and Matteo Taerri. "We should not cherry-pick them.” He added that he was “glad” White and Taerri would both be returning to their families.

In an interview with Fox News, a senior US official said the talks between the US State Department and the Iranian government to release Michael White "took almost four months."

An hour after the publication of The New York Times report, US President Donald Trump confirmed news of White’s release via Twitter. At the same time, Iranian government news agencies quoted Fox News as saying that White had actually been exchanged for an individual named Matteo Taerri, also known as Majid Taheri.

Iranian officials had not previously disclosed the arrest of Matteo Taerri, an Iranian citizen in the United States. Information released after the news of his release stated that Taerri is a dual-national and a medical doctor who has lived in the US for 33 years. He had previously worked for the State of Florida. The US government had arrested him for circumventing sanctions against Iran and he was in custody for nearly 16 months.

IranWire was first to report on White’s presence in an Iranian prison, last year, quoting a prisoner of conscience, Ivar Farhadi, who had met him in prison.

"I was in General Ward 4 and he was in General Ward 3,” Farhadi told IranWire. “In General Ward 3, most people were deprived of the right to telephone use and visits. The open-air exercise schedule was different for each ward, so I had not seen Michael until I met him and talked to him when I went to play volleyball. In that short encounter, the man introduced himself as Michael White, 45, of San Diego, California, and said he was a former member of the US Navy. As he said, he had met an Iranian girl online and traveled to Iran three times to see her. The third time he and his girlfriend were planning to travel to Turkey, but he was arrested at Hashemi-Nejad Airport in Mashhad. He has been in prison since late summer and, according to him, he has a [tumour] in his body that is suspected of being cancerous."

Other media outlets reported that White had traveled to Iran on July 27, 2018 to meet his Iranian girlfriend, whom he had met online. But some time later, he was arrested and sent to Vakilabad prison in Mashhad.

Two days after a January 9, 2019 report in the New York Times featuring Joanne White, Michael White’s mother, Bahram Ghasemi, a spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, announced the presence of a US citizen in Mashhad's Vakilabad Prison on January 2020. He added that Iran had notified the US government through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.

White was later sentenced to 10 years in prison. White House spokesperson Jonathan Franks told IranWire that he had been convicted on charges such as insulting Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and publishing a private image.

According to him, the second charge related to publishing a photo of himself and an Iranian woman, his girlfriend.

A spokesperson for White's family had said at the time that they had no further details on the case and that White had been tried without the presence of a lawyer. White’s translator, meanwhile, was apparently not fluent in English.

Michael White was given temporary medical leave on March 20, 2019, due to concerns over cancer, after making numerous requests.

In an earlier tweet, Donald Trump had said that he had spoken to Michael White once he had arrived in Zurich, Switzerland. White, in his first interview on the runway at Zurich Airport, standing next to Brian Hook, the US State Department's envoy on Iran, said he was happy to be going home.

"I would like to personally thank Mr. Trump for his efforts to release me and for trying to rebuild a good America," Mr. White said. "I am looking forward to seeing what happens in future.”

Asked by a Fox News reporter what his physical condition was, he said: "I'm getting better. I contracted the coronavirus at Mashhad Central Prison and then went on leave. But I recovered."

White also said the first thing he wants to do after returning to his country is to “go to Disneyland."

Michael White is now on his way home, but there are still two other dual nationals who have been jailed for years.

Siamak and Baqer Namazi, two Iranian-American citizens who have each been sentenced to 10 years in prison, are still awaiting release. Siamak Namazi is in Ward 7 of Evin Prison and Baqer Namazi is on medical leave outside the prison.

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