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Iran Sentences Princeton Grad Student on Spy Charges

16 Jul 2017 9:58 pm
By Aresu Eqbali in Tehran and Asa Fitch in Erbil, Iraq 

Iran has handed American academic Xiyue Wang a 10-year prison sentence on spying charges, the news agency for Iran's judiciary said Sunday, the latest in a string of such cases against foreigners that have raised alarm in the U.S. and Europe.

The news agency, Mizan Online, cited Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi, a spokesman for Iran's judiciary, as saying that an American had entered the country at the direction of the U.S. and was identified and arrested.

"It has been confirmed and verified that this individual has come to Iran for infiltration," Mr. Ejehi was quoted as saying. Mr. Ejehi said the person, whom he didn't identify by name, was appealing an Iranian court's initial sentence.

Mizan identified Mr. Wang as the person, citing an "informed source." The agency said Mr. Wang is 37 and was born in Beijing. The agency posted information about the case next to a screenshot of Mr. Wang's profile page at Princeton University.

Princeton spokesman Daniel Day said Mr. Wang is a fourth-year doctoral candidate specializing in 19th- and early 20th-century Eurasian history. He was in Iran last summer to do research on the late Qajar dynasty for his dissertation, he said.

"We were very distressed to learn that charges were brought against him in connection with his scholarly work, and to learn of the subsequent conviction and sentence," Mr. Day said, adding that the university was doing everything it could to support Mr. Wang and his family.

A State Department official said the department was aware of reports of Mr. Wang's detention, but wouldn't go into detail about U.S. efforts in specific cases for privacy reasons. Yet the official decried Iran's recent arrests.

"The Iranian regime continues to detain U.S. citizens and other foreigners on fabricated national-security related charges," the official said. "We call for the immediate release of all U.S. citizens unjustly detained in Iran so they can return to their families."

Mizan described Mr. Wang as a U.S.-Chinese national, but Mr. Day said he only held American citizenship. The Chinese embassy in Washington didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Iran has arrested numerous academics, journalists and businesspeople with foreign ties in recent years and charged them with spying. All have denied the charges.

The detentions and convictions have persisted despite the 2015 nuclear deal between world powers and Iran, which gave Tehran relief from international sanctions in exchange for curbs on its disputed nuclear program.

Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American reporter for the Washington Post, was arrested in 2014 and held on spying charges until his release last year as part of a rare U.S.-Iran prisoner swap just as the nuclear deal took effect.

Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, an Iranian-British national who worked at Thomson Reuters' charitable arm, was arrested in April last year and sentenced to a five-year term on national security charges. Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese internet freedom advocate and permanent U.S. resident, was arrested in late 2015 and given a 10-year sentence. He has gone on several hunger strikes to protest his treatment at Tehran's Evin Prison, according to his U.S.-based lawyer.

Unlike many of the recent detainees, Mr. Wang doesn't appear to hold Iranian citizenship.

A LinkedIn page with a picture matching Mr. Wang's appearance and other details consistent with the Mizan news agency's account says he received a bachelor's degree in 2006 from the University of Washington, and later studied at Harvard University and then Princeton.

Iranian authorities arrested Mr. Wang on August 8, 2016, as he tried to leave Iran for a European country, according to Mizan.

Mr. Wang entered Iran allegedly under the pretext of research and tried to gain access to Iranian archives, Mizan said, citing its source. He made digital copies of 4,500 pages of Iranian documents while under surveillance before his arrest, Mizan said.

Mr. Wang worked with institutions linked to American and British political, security and intelligence organizations, Mizan said. He also had ties to Harvard University's Kennedy School and the British Institute for Persian Studies, Mizan said, citing its source.

Those institutions didn't immediately return requests for comment.

"He would send his studies on Iran directly and indirectly to the organization that had assigned him to do so," Mizan's report said. "He was monitored by security bodies to track down the leaders of the infiltration network inside and outside Iran."

--Nick Timiraos in Washington contributed to this article.

Write to Asa Fitch at asa.fitch@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 16, 2017 17:58 ET (21:58 GMT)

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