After being held in an Iranian prison for nearly two years, a U.S. Navy veteran from San Diego who contracted COVID-19 while in custody has been released and has left the Islamic Republic, his family and officials said Thursday.
Michael White, 48, left Tehran on a Swiss government plane headed to Zurich, Switzerland. U.S. officials said White, who was arrested by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in July 2018 after traveling to the city of Mashhad to visit a woman he had been talking to on a dating website, was on his way back to the United States.
White was arrested in the religious city in northeastern Iran during his third trip to the country. The cancer survivor was then held in the notorious Vakilabad Prison, which is known for its harsh conditions.
Throughout his time in custody, White’s lawyers and family in the U.S. were concerned about his deteriorating health. As the coronavirus battered Iran and spread throughout its prisons, family spokesman Jonathan Franks said in March that White had started developing symptoms that were consistent with COVID-19.
He was later hospitalized in a ward for coronavirus patients after falling ill with a fever, fatigue and cough, Franks said.
Given his prior health issues, White’s mother and legal team had been growing increasingly concerned about her son’s welfare and feared his life was in danger.
Mark Zaid, a lawyer representing White’s family, and Franks had in recent months called on President Trump to intensify efforts to secure White’s release, and in recent weeks rumors of his release circulated. News of White’s release was a surprise to his mother.
“For the past 683 days my son, Michael, has been held hostage in Iran by the IRGC and I have been living a nightmare. I am blessed to announce that the nightmare is over, and my son is safely on his way home,” Joanne White said in a statement.
“I am incredibly grateful to the Administration, especially the team at the State Department for their work on Michael’s case and I owe the Swiss Diplomats who have worked so hard to keep Michael safe a debt I can never repay. Outside of Government, I’d like to thank Gov. Bill Richardson for repeatedly raising Michael’s case with Iranian officials and delivering my personal pleas for my son’s freedom.”
Earlier Thursday, President Trump tweeted that White was on Swiss plane and that it had safely left Iranian airspace.
“We expect him to be home with his family in America very soon,” Trump said.
White served 13 years in the Navy, where he worked in aviation maintenance administration. Afterward, he attended San Diego State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science.
His release comes a few days after detained Iranian American scientist Sirous Asgari was freed from U.S. custody and flown back to Iran. He was reunited with family on Wednesday.
While officials in Iran and the U.S., have denied that Asgari and White’s release was part of a prisoner swap, both sides have indicated that the release of the men signaled a positive development that could result in more such releases in the future.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he was happy with the news of White and Asgari’s release and called on the U.S. to release all Iranians in its custody.
“This can happen for all prisoners,” he said. “No need for cherry-picking.”
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo described Iran as being “constructive in this matter.”
“I commend U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook for negotiating Mr. White’s release with the Iranians. I thank the Swiss government and the work of our diplomats for facilitating this successful diplomacy,” Pompeo said in a statement.
“While we are pleased that Iran was constructive in this matter, there is more work to do. The United States will not rest until we bring every American detained in Iran and around the world back home to their loved ones.”
There are at least four other Americans held as prisoners in Iran.
Babak Namazi, whose brother and father, both dual citizens, were arrested and imprisoned while visiting Iran more than four years ago, said that he is happy for White’s family, but that it has become extremely hard to see more prisoners released while his ailing 84-year-old father, Baquer, is still not allowed to leave Iran and his brother, Siamak, remains stuck in an Iranian prison.
“My brother Siamak Namazi remains in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, despite Iran having furloughed 100,000 other prisoners due to COVID-19 pandemic,” Babak Namazi said in a statement. “How much should one family have to bear and what will it take to finally get my loved ones home?”
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.