Yellow Ribbon Project

Princeton Student Sentenced to 10 Years Joins 6 Other U.S. Hostages Held by Iran

Princeton University confirmed Sunday that a graduate student researching his dissertation in Iran had been sentenced to 10 years behind bars on charges of espionage.

Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency reported that an American had been convicted and sentenced, but didn’t name dual Chinese-U.S. citizen Xiyue Wang. The news agency said Iran’s Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Mohseni Eje’i made the announcement on state TV, claiming he was “gathering intelligence and was directly guided by the U.S., was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but the sentence can be appealed.” Fars said Iranian officials claimed Wang spied using a “sophisticated means” that wasn’t detailed.

Xiyue Wang (Princeton University)

In a statement, Princeton said Wang is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in late 19th and early 20th century Eurasian history. “He was arrested in Iran last summer, while there doing scholarly research on the administrative and cultural history of the late Qajar dynasty in connection with his Ph.D. dissertation. Since his arrest, the university has worked with Mr. Wang’s family, the U.S. government, private counsel and others to facilitate his release.”

“We were very distressed by the charges brought against him in connection with his scholarly activities, and by his subsequent conviction and sentence,” the statement continued. “His family and the university are distressed at his continued imprisonment and are hopeful that he will be released after his case is heard by the appellate authorities in Tehran. In the interim, the university will continue to do everything it can to be supportive of Mr. Wang and his family.”

Professor Stephen Kotkin, who is Wang’s doctoral adviser, told the Associated Press that the 37-year-old “is a remarkable, linguistically gifted graduate student” and innocent.

Wang was arrested last August after Iran said he was scanning large quantities of documents and sending digital scans to the State Department, Princeton and Harvard. Kotkin said Wang was scanning historical documents — a “normal, standard scholarly practice” — that were about 100 years old. Wang got his bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington and studied at Harvard before Princeton. He speaks English, Mandarin, Persian, Turkish and Pashto.

The State Department didn’t directly address Wang’s case, but said Iran holds Americans on “fabricated” charges and “the safety and security of U.S. citizens remain a top priority.”

Asked at today’s briefing about Wang, White House press secretary Sean Spicer replied that “with respect to that individual, he is someone that we’re keeping an eye on.”

Tweeted Washington Post staff writer Jason Rezaian, who was held by the regime from July 2014 to January 2016, “Pretty sure it will take more than urging to bring them home.”

Wang joins half a dozen other U.S. citizens and residents being unjustly detained by Iran.

Robert Levinson

Robert Levinson

A former FBI agent and 69-year-old father of seven, Robert Levinson was working as a private detective on a cigarette smuggling case on Kish Island, an Iranian resort port in the Persian Gulf with looser entrance requirements. He disappeared in March 2007, and his wife made subsequent trips to Iran to try to find out any information. A hostage video of Levinson was sent to the family in late 2010, and in April 2011 they received photos of him. They released the photos in January 2013 out of frustration that not enough was being done by the government.

When five U.S. hostages were returned from Iran at the time of the implementation of the nuclear deal in January 2016, Bob Levinson was not among them. His frustrated family started the hashtag #WhatAboutBob as the other captive Americans returned home. Levinson is the longest-held hostage in U.S. history.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that it’s “an established fact that Mr. Levinson was arrested without any legal ground, in violation of his rights as established in article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 9 of the Covenant, and has been detained since then.”

“This violation is further aggravated by the time elapsed — almost 10 years — and the lack of due diligence by the authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” the working group concluded.

Baquer and Siamak Namazi

Siamak and Baquer Namazi

Siamak Namazi, a businessman who was raised in the United States and had been working out of Dubai, was arrested in October 2015 while visiting a friend in Tehran. Namazi hails from a prominent Iranian family; his father used to be governor in Khuzestan province and a UNICEF official, and the family immigrated to the U.S. in 1983. His father, Baquer Namazi, 81, was arrested in Tehran in February and also taken to the city’s notoriously brutal Evin prison.

In October, the Namazis were sentenced to 10 years in prison “for spying and cooperating with the U.S. government against Iran.” Iran said the Namazis weren’t included in the January hostage swap with the Obama administration because their seizure was “not political.”

“A second father’s day which I am kept apart from my father and engulfed with the darkest side of humanity…I must take solace in my father’s unshakable faith in humanity even now while he is held victim of this inhumanity,” Babak Namazi, who has been relentlessly lobbying for the release of his brother and father, posted on his Facebook page last month. “I draw strength from one my father’s favorite quotes of Gandhi whom my father greatly admires and follows his teachings: ‘You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.'”

Nizar Zakka

Nizar Zakka

Nizar Zakka, a D.C. information technology and economic development expert who visited Tehran at the invitation of the Iranian government to speak at a conference on women’s entrepreneurship and employment, was seized as he tried to catch a return flight in September 2015. The State Department even helped fund his trip, according to his colleagues.

The Lebanese-American and permanent U.S. resident is secretary-general of the Dupont Circle-based IJMA3 group, which lobbies for the information and communications technology industry in the Middle East. Zakka earned degrees from the University of Texas after graduating from the Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Ga., in 1985. He used to work as a software engineer at contractor Kellogg, Brown & Root in the early ’90s.

He was sentenced to 10 years on espionage charges a year after his arrest. Friends of Zakka — including former Riverside Military Academy president Col. James Benson (USMC ret.), Army Major Gen. John Peabody (ret.), and former Assistant Secretary of the Army Paul Woodley — have lobbied the State Department to “mount a humanitarian effort” to free the IT expert, arguing he is “a man without country when it comes to consular assistance” as the Lebanese government wouldn’t take up the U.S. resident’s case.

Robin Shahini

Robin Shahini

San Diego resident Robin Shahini, a grad student and Christian convert pursuing a master’s degree in homeland security, was visiting his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother in Iran when he was seized in July 2016. There seemed to be no reason for his detention other than a history of criticizing Iran’s human-rights abuses in a handful of Facebook and blog posts and supporting the 2009 Green Revolution.

In October, Shahini was sentenced to 18 years in prison for insulting the Iranian regime, “insulting sanctities,” collaborating with U.S. media and espionage. His defense was allowed less than half an hour in a three-hour court proceeding. In April, Shahini, who mounted a hunger strike in prison, was released within Iran on bail as he waits for a ruling in his appeal.

Karan Vafadari and Afarin Niasari

Karan Vafadari

A dual national who was born in Tehran and graduated from New York University before receiving his MBA at UCLA, Karan Vafadari owns an art gallery in Tehran along with his Iranian wife, Afarin Niasari. When Niasari was attempting to fly to Italy for an art project in July 2016, she was detained by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps agents who told her to call her husband, then detained Vafadari as well when he came to the airport as asked. They were sent to Evin prison.

Last August, prosecutors accused the couple of serving alcohol in their home and throwing mixed-gender parties for foreign dignitaries; as a Zoroastrian, Vafadari technically should not be subject to those Islamic rules under Iranian law. In March, they were also charged with running a house of vice and espionage along with “attempting to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Iranian officials have also declared the couple’s civil marriage invalid, as they married in Nevada in 2002 and Niasari was born into a Muslim family.

Vafadari’s sons and a daughter live in the United States. “What Karan’s three children, Aundia, Cyrus and myself want is the immediate release of Karan and Afarin as we know they are kind and nice, and are certain they are innocent and have committed no crime,” his son Maziar wrote in an April open letter.