By Donald Gilpin
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has called for the immediate release of Princeton graduate student Xiyue Wang, who has been imprisoned in Iran for more than two years. The Working Group has concluded that the government of Iran had “no legal basis for the arrest and detention” of the 37-year-old history scholar, that Iran committed “multiple violations” of his right to a fair trial, and that his “deprivation of liberty is arbitrary.”
Responding to a petition filed earlier this year by Wang’s wife Hua Qu and his mother, the Working Group’s report, adopted on August 23, states, “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.” It goes on to assert that the appropriate remedy would be to release Wang immediately.
A naturalized American citizen and fourth-year graduate student, Wang was in Iran in 2016 to study Farsi and conduct research for his doctoral dissertation, reviewing documents dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Iran’s National Archives.
He was arrested in August 2016, confined in Tehran’s Evin Prison, convicted in a non-public trial on two counts of espionage, and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The Working Group, which expressed grave concerns about Wang’s health and about the conditions in which he is being held, concluded that 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 and heard his appeal “do not meet the standards of an impartial and independent tribunal”; and that Wang’s case is part of a pattern of Iran targeting foreign nationals for detention.
In Iran’s response to the petition, according to the UN Working Group, “the government did not explain…how Mr. Wang had cooperated with a foreign state… against the Islamic Republic of Iran, nor how accessing historical archives relating to a period of governance over 100 years ago could amount to an attempt to overthrow the Iranian government.”
Iran also “did not explain how Mr. Wang’s trial on espionage charges posed a national security threat so serious that it warranted a closed hearing,” the Working Group noted. The report went on to claim that Wang’s imprisonment was motivated by the fact that he is a United States citizen and that his 10-year prison sentence is disproportionately heavy, “as there is no evidence that…he was intending to, or did in fact, conduct espionage or cause ethnic crisis in Iran.”
Responding to the U.N. Working Group report on Monday, Princeton University Vice President and Secretary Robert K. Durkee said, “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.”
In a separate statement also issued Monday, Hua Qu described “many cruelties” that her husband had undergone “from being kidnapped to enduring solitary confinement, repeated interrogations, humiliating treatment, harsh living conditions, unjust legal proceedings, and immense emotional distress,” resulting in deterioration of his physical and mental health.
“He has lost weight, developed arthritis in his knees, suffered rashes and pains all over his body, and fallen victim to depression,” she wrote.
Urging the U.S. government and the international community to work together to secure Wang’s release, Hua Qu described their son, “now 5 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?’”
The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention was established in 1991 by the former Commission on Human Rights to investigate cases of deprivation of liberty imposed arbitrarily or otherwise inconsistently with international standards and rights.