Iran releases American student in prisoner swap, foreign minister says

Posted at 6:15 AM, Dec 07, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-07 09:15:52-05

(CNN) -- An American graduate student, who had been held for three years in Iran on suspicion of being a spy, has been freed and is headed to an American military base in Europe.

Chinese-born Xiyue Wang, a Princeton University PhD student, was conducting research in Tehran when he was arrested there on espionage charges in August 2016. Wang was sent to Iran's notorious Evin Prison and sentenced to 10 years.

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Saturday that Wang's release comes as a prisoner swap between the two countries. In exchange for Wang's release, the US freed Iranian scientist Massoud Soleimani, Zarif said on Twitter, sharing a photo of himself accompanying Soleimani home on an Iranian plane. Soleimani, an Iranian stem cell scientist, was arrested by US law enforcement upon landing in Chicago in fall 2018, according to Iran's state-run Press TV.

Zarif said Soleimani and Wang would be "joining their families shortly."

Because the US and Iran do not have diplomatic relations, the Swiss government had provided consular services to Wang and reported back to the State Department.

The White House announced Wang's release in a statement early Saturday, thanking the Swiss for their assistance in negotiating with Iran. US officials have not replied to CNN's request for comment regarding Iran's claim of Soleimani's release.

"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," President Donald Trump said in a statement.

Wang was headed to a US base in Europe and then eventually will travel back to the US after being freed from an Iranian prison, a source familiar with the matter told CNN. The source did not provide details about the location or the reason for the stop at the base, but in past instances Americans who have been held overseas in foreign detention have been taken to such locations for a medical evaluation. The source could not say how long he might spend at the base before returning to the US.

Wang was flown on a Swiss government airplane to Zurich from Iran, a different source familiar with the matter confirmed to CNN. Brian Hook, the State Department's special representative for Iran, met him in Zurich, the source confirmed.

The New York Times first reported the details of the Zurich arrival.

'He was simply a scholar'

Wang was born in 1980 in Beijing and immigrated in 2001 to the US, where he became a naturalized citizen in 2009. Wang's wife, Hua Qu, and his young son, Shaofan, are Chinese citizens.

Wang is a student of late 19th and early 20th century Eurasian history, according to Princeton University. With funding from the university, Wang went to Iran to study Farsi and conduct scholarly research for his dissertation.

Before traveling to Iran, Wang laid out his research plan in letters to the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, DC, which issued his visa.

"He was not involved in any political activities or social activism; he was simply a scholar trying to gain access to materials he needed for his dissertation," the university says.

Iran accused Wang of being "sent" by Princeton to "infiltrate" the country, charges which the university says are "completely false."

In 2018, a United Nations panel on arbitrary detention said that there was no legal basis for Wang's arrest and imprisonment, and called for his immediate release.

'Bargaining chip'

In August, three years after he was imprisoned, Wang's wife, Hua Qu, issued a plea for Trump and the international community to help free her husband.

"My husband is an academic researcher. He's a father, husband. He is not a political figure and he is definitely not a spy," Qu said at at the National Press Club in Washington, adding that she felt Wang was being used as a "bargaining chip" in a "geopolitical dispute" between the US and Iran.

While Qu said at the time that she was in regular contact with the State Department, including Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Robert O'Brien, she was looking for the administration to do more. She referenced the fact that Trump had dispatched O'Brien to Sweden on behalf of A$AP Rocky, noting that the arrested rapper "quickly got released."

On Saturday, Qu celebrated her husband's release, saying in a statement: "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."

After news of Wang's release broke, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Twitter Saturday that the US would "not rest until we bring every American detained in Iran and around the world back home to their loved ones."