An American scholar jailed in Iran can appeal a verdict sentencing him to ten years in prison for espionage, Iranian judicial authorities said, after an apparently secret trial in which he was accused of using his status as a student to send documents to the U.S. government.
Xiyue Wang, a graduate student at Princeton, was detained in Iran in August after spending the summer researching the Qajar dynasty, the university said. The arrest of the 37-year-old, an expert on Eurasian history, had not been made public until this past weekend, when his sentence was announced.
“He is innocent of all the charges. In Tehran, Wang collected documents that were 100 years old,” said Stephen Kotkin, Wang’s adviser at Princeton.
“He has told me often of his exhilaration at the exquisiteness and depth of Persian civilization,” Kotkin said. Princeton’s vice president of communications, Daniel Day, said the university was “very distressed by the charges brought against him.”
“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,” Day said.
Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, a spokesman for Iran’s judiciary, had announced Sunday that a U.S. citizen had been sentenced for “infiltration” but did not give details. Iran’s judiciary is a hard-line and secretive institution, and convictions are often based on little to no evidence and vague charges, rights groups say.
“It was verified and determined that he was gathering [information] and was involved in infiltration,” Mohseni-Ejei said at a news conference in Tehran, the Associated Press reported.
The Mizan news agency, which is affiliated with Iran’s judiciary, later reported that Wang was sentenced as part of an “infiltration project” that included the gathering of “confidential articles” to send to the State Department and other Western academic institutions.
The report said Wang had infiltrated Iran’s national archives and other libraries to create a digital archive for certain “centers of subversion” in Britain and the United States, including the State Department. It said he had managed to digitize 4,500 articles, and it cited a quote from Wang as evidence of his guilt.
“I have been having trouble accessing Tehran’s archives and libraries,” Wang had said in the 2015-2016 annual report of the British Institute of Persian Studies, a nonprofit organization based in London. Mizan published the quote with the line: “Wang admits his mission.”
“Mrs. Reyhanpour offered to help,” Wang continued in the report, referring to one of the institute’s employees. “And within a few days, she put me in contact with senior scholars at the National Archive. . . . Without Mrs. Reyhanpour’s help it would be hard to imagine how long it would have taken for me to become acquainted with academic institutions in Iran.”
Wang’s conviction comes at a particularly tense time for U.S.-Iranian relations, which have rapidly deteriorated since President Donald Trump took office.
Under the previous administration, the United States and other world powers negotiated a deal with Iran to curb its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. It was hailed as a victory for diplomacy and an end to Iran’s global isolation.
Since then, the Trump administration has stepped up its anti-Iran rhetoric and placed U.S. participation in the nuclear deal under review. Monday is the deadline for the White House to decide whether to issue a waiver on nuclear-related sanctions against Iran, a provision that is required periodically under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal. The administration is expected to approve the waiver, despite an internal debate on how to respond to Iran’s human rights abuses and support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.
“The Iranian regime continues to detain U.S. citizens and other foreigners on fabricated national-security related changes,” a State Department official said in an emailed statement Sunday. Iran is believed to hold a number of foreign nationals, mostly dual citizens of the United States and European countries, but many of their identities have been kept secret.
“We call for the immediate release of all U.S. citizens unjustly detained in Iran so they can return to their families,” the State Department official said.
Social media pages with Wang’s name, photo and similar work and study history indicate that he studied at Harvard University from 2006 to 2008 and later worked as a Pashto language interpreter for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan.