American researcher sentenced to prison in Iran, the latest foreigner jailed on espionage charges

An American citizen has been sentenced to prison for espionage in Iran, the latest foreign national to be jailed on spying charges in the Islamic Republic, state news media reported Sunday.

Mizan news agency, the mouthpiece of Iran’s judiciary, identified the American as Xiyue Wang, a 37-year-old researcher at Princeton University. Wang, who was born in China, was arrested in August 2016 while trying to leave Iran, the report said.

Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi, a spokesman for the judiciary, said a court had sentenced Wang to 10 years in prison. He has the right to appeal.

Mizan reported that Wang had “digitally archived” 4,500 pages of Iranian documents for foreign research institutions, including Princeton and the British Institute of Persian Studies.

The news agency published screenshots of Wang’s Princeton Web page and an excerpt of a March 2016 report from the British institute that quoted Wang as saying he had been in contact with “senior scholars” at Iranian government archives in Tehran and Mashhad.

Mizan cited the statement as evidence that Wang was on a covert mission, even though the institute’s report was publicly available.

In a statement, Princeton said Wang is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the university’s history department, studying late 19th and early 20th century Eurasian history. It said Wang was arrested while conducting research on the Qajar dynasty, which ruled Iran until 1925.

The university said Wang’s family, the U.S. government, lawyers, Princeton officials and others had been working to secure 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 said. “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.”

At least three Americans are imprisoned in Iran. Baquer Namazi, 80, and his son Siamak are serving 10-year sentences in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison and are believed to be in ill health. Karan Vafadari, who owns an art gallery in Tehran, was arrested last July with his wife, a U.S. green card holder.

A fourth American, Gholamrez “Reza” Shahini of San Diego, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for national security crimes but has appealed the judgment and is free on bond.

The U.S. government has repeatedly called for the Americans’ release. An unknown number of Iranians holding European passports are also believed to be jailed.

The prisoners are apparent pawns in a power struggle between the hard-line judiciary and the more moderate government of President Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani, who won reelection in May, has invited Iranian dual citizens to return to the country to help bolster its economy.

In another sign of the struggle, Rouhani’s brother, Hossein Fereydoun, was arrested on corruption charges, Ejehi said Sunday.

Allegations against Fereydoun of money laundering and theft of government funds date back several years and have not been proved, but hard-liners have called for his arrest for months.

Analysts believe Fereydoun is being targeted because he is close to Rouhani and was part of the negotiating team that sealed the 2015 nuclear agreement with the United States and five other countries. Hard-liners strongly oppose the agreement, which they believe sacrificed Iran’s nuclear program while failing to obtain enough economic concessions in return.

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Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

Follow @SBengali on Twitter


UPDATES:

8:30 p.m.: This article was updated with comment from Princeton University.

This article was originally published at 11:20 a.m.

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