Issued on: 04/06/2020 – 18:06Modified: 04/06/2020 – 18:06
A Navy veteran detained in Iran for nearly two years has been released and started making his way home, with the first leg on a Swiss government aircraft, U.S. officials said Thursday. “The nightmare is over,” his mother said.
The U.S. special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, flew to Zurich with a doctor to meet freed detainee Michael White and will accompany White to the United States aboard an American plane, the officials said.
Whites release was part of an agreement involving an Iranian-American doctor prosecuted by the Justice Department, and followed months of quiet negotiations over prisoners.
The two countries are at bitter odds over U.S. penalties imposed after President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal and over the killing by American forces of a top Iranian general in Iraq at the beginning of this year.
“I am blessed to announce that the nightmare is over, and my son is safely in American custody and on his way home,” Whites mother, Joanne White, said in a statement. She thanked the State Department and Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and onetime New Mexico governor, for raising her sons case with the Iranians.
Richardson, who met with Iran's foreign minister and ambassador to the U.N. about the case, said in a statement that the “release should have and could have been done earlier, but I am glad and relieved that Mike is on his way home to get treated." White had been diagnosed with coronavirus, but has been recovering.
White, of Imperial Beach, California, was detained by Iranian authorities in July 2018 while visiting a woman he had met online and fallen in love with. He was convicted of insulting Irans supreme leader and posting private information online, and was sentenced to a decade in prison.
“Simply put, the charges' against Michael were pretexts for a state-sponsored kidnap-for-ransom scheme,” family spokesman Jon Franks said in a statement Thursday. “The tragedy of this case is Michael's only only crime was falling in love with Iran and its people for whom he cares deeply.”
Despite widespread speculation, Whites release was not related to the deportation to Iran this week of Iranian scientist Sirios Asghari, the officials said. White's release was predicated on another prisoner deal, the details of which were to be released later Thursday.
In March, White was released from prison on a medical furlough as Iran struggled to cope with the coronavirus outbreak. White was turned over to the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which represents U.S. interests in Iran. He was among tens of thousands of prisoners granted medical furloughs by Iran, which was one of the first countries to be hit hard by the pandemic.
Whites mother told The Associated Press at that time that she was especially concerned about her sons health because of his battles with cancer, and Richardson called on Iran to grant him an immediate humanitarian evacuation.
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