United Nations calls for immediate release of Princeton graduate student imprisoned in Iran

Xiyue Wang with his family before he went to Iran. Family photo via Princeton University.

A United Nations working group on arbitrary detention says the government of Iran had no legal basis for the arrest and detention of Princeton University graduate student Xiyue Wang, who has been in an Iranian prison for more than two years now.

The group found that Iran violated his right to a fair trial, that his imprisonment is arbitrary, and that he should be released immediately.

“The working group requests the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to take the steps necessary to remedy the situation of Mr. Wang without delay and bring it into conformity with the relevant international norms,” reads the report.

Xiyue Wang, a graduate student in the history department, is a naturalized U.S. citizen. He was in Iran in 2016 to study Farsi and conduct scholarly research for his doctoral dissertation. He had been reviewing documents dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Iran’s National Archives, and was arrested in August 2016. He was later convicted in a non-public trial on two counts of espionage. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

“Xiyue Wang has been unjustly imprisoned and separated from his wife and young child for more than two years,” said Princeton University Princeton Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee in a written statement. “The Working Group makes it clear that Wang was in Iran solely to do scholarly work, and that the charges against him were entirely without merit. We hope these findings by the working group and its call for his immediate release will, in fact, expedite his release so he can return to his family and come back to campus to complete his Ph.D.”

Established in 1991 by the former Commission on Human Rights to investigate cases of deprivation of liberty imposed arbitrarily or in in a manner that is inconsistent with international standards and rights, the working group receives petitions from or on behalf of prisoners around the world and issues opinions as to whether they have been imprisoned in violation of national or international law. Xiyue Wang’s wife and mother filed a petition on his behalf.

The group found that Xiyue Wang was peacefully exercising his right to seek and receive information for academic purposes, that Iran’s espionage laws are vague and overly broad, that no trial of Wang should have taken place, that the Revolutionary Courts that tried Wang do not meet the standards of an impartial and independent tribunal, and that Wang’s case is part of Iran’s practice of targeting foreign nationals for detention.

The government of Iran did not provide an any explanation justifying its actions against Xiyue Wang, according to the working group. The group also expressed grave concerns about the conditions in which Wang has been held, and has recommended that he be transferred to a hospital.

Hua Qu wrote on Facebook Monday that she is encouraged to see the injustices committed against her husband recognized in the working group’s strong opinion.

“This decision and similar statements by the U.S. government underline the fact that Iranian authorities have no legal basis for detaining Xiyue and should immediately release him on humanitarian grounds,” she wrote. “Innocent people should not be instrumentalized for political purposes.”

Hua Qu said her husband has endured cruel conditions, from being kidnapped to enduring solitary confinement, repeated interrogations, harsh living conditions, and unjust legal proceedings.

“Now my husband’s physical and mental health are rapidly deteriorating. He has lost weight, developed arthritis in his knees, suffered rashes and pains all over his body, and fallen victim to depression. I urge the U.S. government and other stakeholders to work together toward his swift release. Legal opinions and statements alone cannot bring him home. Words must be followed by concrete actions,” she wrote. “Our son is now five years old and starting kindergarten. Over the two years of his father’s absence, he has developed a remarkable resilience. But the problems of the adult world trouble him every single day. The devastating reality of our son’s young life is encapsulated in the question: Why can’t Daddy come home after 855 days?”