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Iran frees US Navy veteran held for nearly 2 years

Posted at 12:54 PM, Jun 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-04 12:54:33-04

The Iranian government has freed a U.S. Navy veteran after detaining him for nearly two years, according to his family.

Michael White departed the country Thursday on a Swiss government aircraft, according to President Donald Trump, who welcomed the news in a tweet.

"For the past 683 days my son, Michael, has been held hostage in Iran by the IRGC and I have been living a nightmare," his mother Joanne White said in a statement to ABC News. "I am blessed to announce that the nightmare is over, and my son is safely on his way home."

White's release comes just days after an Iranian professor was released from U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement custody and returned to Iran. Sirous Asgari, an Iranian professor working at Case Western Reserve University, had been charged with stealing trade secrets, but a federal judge dismissed the case against him last fall, citing a lack of evidence. He remained in U.S. custody because of an expired visa.

Both countries have denied that Asgari was part of a prisoner exchange.

State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus told ABC News Tuesday that Asgari "is not and has never been a participant in any prisoner swap with Iran." The Trump administration had been trying to deport Asgari since December, she added, "but the Iranian government repeatedly has held up the process."

There are at least three American citizens that remain imprisoned by the Iranian government, an adversary of the U.S. for decades known for taking westerners hostage: Siamak Namazi, a businessman held since October 2015; his father, Baquer Namazi, an 83-year old former United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) official and Iranian provincial governor; and Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian environmentalist with U.S. and British citizenship.

"My prayers are with the Namazi and Tahbaz families and the families of so many other wrongfully detained Americans around the world," Joanne White said Thursday.

White was first detained in July 2018 while visiting an Iranian girlfriend on his third trip to the country. He was represented in Iranian court by a government-appointed lawyer who did not speak English, convicted of insulting the country's supreme leader and posting on social media, and sentenced to a combined 12 years in prison.

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Concern about White's case had grown in recent months. A cancer patient, he contracted the novel coronavirus while in Iranian custody, was released on medical furlough, and at one point hospitalized because of the virus. The family spokesperson started a GoFundMe page for him last May.

"Our response will be decisive," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned in March, if White or any other American died while in a foreign government's custody.

Trump heralded White's release, tweeting, "I will never stop working to secure the release of all Americans held hostage overseas!"

It's unclear if White is headed directly to the U.S. or first stopping somewhere in Europe. He was evacuated from Iran on a Swiss government aircraft because Switzerland is the United States' protecting power in Iran, looking after American citizens and interests in the absence of a U.S. diplomatic mission.

Joanne White thanked the Swiss government, along with the State Department and its Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who has acted as an interlocutor with the Iranian government.