September 20, 2017

Vigil Shows Support for Imprisoned Student

By Donald Gilpin

About 200 professors, colleagues, friends, their families, and other supporters gathered in Princeton University’s East Pyne Courtyard Friday evening to hold a candlelight vigil in support of Xiyue Wang, a graduate student who has been imprisoned in Iran for the past 13 months.

Speakers, who included Wang’s wife, two of his professors, and several of his colleagues and friends, focused mostly on Wang’s qualities as a person, a scholar, a husband, and father to a 4-year-old son. Those closest to Wang, 37, described him as a talented, ambitious, dedicated scholar, full of intellectual curiosity and interest in Iranian culture, a steadfast friend and a loving family man with a distinct flair for cooking. 

There was also a call, sounded most directly by his wife, for the United States to work with the international community to bring pressure on Iran to release Wang and other political prisoners.

“My husband was persecuted for his scholarship and criminalized for his American citizenship,” said Hua Qu, Wang’s wife. “America is my husband’s adopted homeland. He chose to study and work here. Will this country stand up for him the way he stood up for American values? I hope the answer is a resounding ‘Yes.’”

Relations with Iran are on President Trump’s agenda this week at the United Nations in New York, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif both in attendance, and Trump is expected to raise the issue of American hostages, along with concerns about the nuclear agreement, Iranian military action in the Middle East, and human rights abuses.

“It is time for the regime to free all Americans and citizens of other nations that they have unjustly detained,” Trump said in his speech to the General Assembly Tuesday.

In July, after Iran announced Wang’s 10-year sentence for espionage, the White House issued a statement that Trump and the administration were “redoubling efforts to bring home all Americans unjustly detained abroad.”

The statement concluded, “President Trump is prepared to impose new and serious consequences on Iran unless all unjustly imprisoned American citizens are released and returned.”

A PhD student in the history department, Wang visited Iran in 2016 to pursue his language studies and conduct research in archival documents from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was arrested in August 2016, and in April 2017 he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

His case was kept confidential for a year in order to avoid interfering with efforts to arrange his release. Then in July of this year the case became public when the Iran judiciary announced his sentence.

Princeton University has stated that Iran’s allegations of espionage “are completely false,” and that Wang “was not involved in any political activities or social activism; he was simply a scholar trying to gain access to materials he needed for his dissertation.”

Assistant University Vice President for Communication Daniel Day added, “We will continue to do all we can to bring Mr. Wang home and to support his wife and young son.”

After the Iranian judiciary announced last month that it had rejected his appeal, Princeton students and other members of the University community decided to organize a vigil to show support for Wang and to express their hopes that he will return soon to his family, friends, and colleagues.

Vigil organizer Richard A. Anderson, a friend of Wang and a graduate student colleague in the history department at Princeton, noted that the vigil “effectively expressed our hope for Wang to come home. Everyone who spoke articulated well who Wang is and how we miss our friend and classmate.”

He continued, “in the midst of this sad situation, the mood felt warm and loving. It was like a play where there’s a character who is unseen but you get to know him through others’ comments. That’s what came through in so many small details about Wang.”