An American graduate student who was held in an Iranian prison for more than three years was finally headed home Saturday after a prisoner swap between the two countries.
Xiyue Wang, 38, was released in Switzerland in exchange for Iranian citizen Massoud Soleimani, who was being held in an Atlanta jail over accusations he violated U.S. sanctions.
“We thank our Swiss partners for their assistance in negotiating Mr. Wang’s release with Iran,” said President Donald Trump in a statement confirming the news.
“The highest priority of the United States is the safety and well-being of its citizens. 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.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif posted on Twitter early Saturday ahead of the swap, and again after it was confirmed.
Wang is a Chinese-born naturalized American citizen and a fourth-year doctoral student of history at Princeton University.
He was arrested in August 2016 while carrying out research on Iran’s Qajar dynasty for his Ph.D., according to the university, his wife and the U.S. government.
He was convicted of two counts of espionage in April 2017 and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. He had been held in Evin Prison, the Tehran facility that houses most of the country’s political prisoners.
The U.S. had repeatedly called for his release. In his statement Saturday, Trump said he “had been held under the pretense of espionage.”
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His wife, Qu Hua, had worked with Princeton trying to win his release. She told NBC News in November 2017 that Wang was struggling with depression in prison.
He was also missing out on watching their son grow up, she said, having last seen the boy when he was only 2 years old.
“My son told his teacher that, ‘When I grow up, my daddy will come home,'” Qu said.
After the news that he would do just that this weekend, a statement was posted to what appeared to be a Twitter account for the family.
“Our family is complete once again,” Qu said according to the statement.
“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. We are thankful to everyone who helped make this happen.”
NBC News has not verified the authenticity of the account, which has the handle “Free Xiyue Wang.”
Iran released video in November 2017 of Wang allegedly trying to smuggle documents. Then-State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert explicitly denied Wang was working on behalf of any U.S. government agency.
Qu later said she believed Iran knew her husband was a legitimate scholar and was targeted because of his nationality.
“He’s innocent and he is just a student,” she said, adding his arrest was a “sacrifice of the political situation.”
Wang was among at least four other Americans being held by Iran, including Iranian-American father and son Siamak and Baquer Namazi, navy veteran Michael White and former FBI agent Robert Levinson.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saturday that “The United States will not rest until we bring every American detained in Iran and around the world back home to their loved ones.””We thank the Swiss government for facilitating the return of Mr. Wang,” Pompeo added, “and are pleased that Tehran has been constructive in this matter.””We continue to call for the release of all U.S. citizens unjustly detained in Iran.”
Wang’s freedom came in exchange for Soleimani, a medical research scientist who was arrested in October 2018. The U.S. accused Soleimani of violating sanctions against Iran by attempting to export biological materials in the form of human growth hormone without authorization.
The swap comes amid growing tensions between Iran and the U.S. and its allies in the Gulf.
The Pentagon said Thursday that the U.S. was formulating plans to potentially deploy more U.S. troops to the Middle East in response to a growing threat from Tehran.
Crushing sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump last year, following the unilateral withdrawal from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers, have left Iran facing widespread economic discontent.
Demonstrations erupted across the country recently in response to a 50 percent hike in gas prices. U.S. officials, along with human rights groups, said as many as 1,000 Iranians have been killed and thousands more imprisoned since the protests began on Nov. 15.
Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, called the casualty numbers “purely speculative and highly inaccurate,” while adding an investigation into the “disturbances” and “those affected, whether injured or killed” was ongoing.
Trump weighed in on the protests Tuesday, saying in a tweet that “America supports the brave people of Iran who are protesting for their freedom.”
Abigail Williams contributed.