U.S. Navy Veteran
Michael White is a California native who served for 13 years in the U.S. Navy. He suffers from asthma and cancer. He flew from Los Angeles to Dubai on July 9, 2018, and then from there to Iran to visit a woman he claimed was his girlfriend. He visited her four times in several years, prior to his detention.
White’s family announced in January of 2019 that he was arrested in July of 2018 while in Iran to visit his girlfriend. The Iranian foreign ministry claimed in January of 2019 that White was arrested “in the city of Mashhad a while ago, and within a few days after his arrest the U.S. government was informed of the arrest through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.” According to his mother, Joanne, he was taken to court at least twice and has been held in Vakilabad Prison. White is the first American—to public knowledge—that Iran has taken hostage during the presidency of Donald Trump.
Treatment in Prison
According to his mother, White, who has asthma and previously had cancer, “was badly beaten when he was arrested and… has been taken to court at least twice for proceedings in Farsi that he couldn’t understand. My son is not well. His health is deteriorating, and I want him back so I can get him the care he badly needs.” A spokesman for White’s mother later said that she was concerned that his cancer had returned. And in August of 2019, after the authorities permitted them to meet with White, Swiss diplomats learned that his cancer had come back. The diplomats were told that prison hospital physicians had excised a melanoma from his back and that White still had other health problems, including dental issues caused by his previous courses of chemotherapy. His mother said that the authorities whipped his bare feet and a gun to his head.
Just after Christmas in 2019, White spoke with his mother, who recorded the conversation, about his jailers’ appalling treatment of him. “They've done everything to press me,” White said. “They really have. I mean, they put me in isolation. They, like I said, subjected me to torturous conditions, deprivation of food and water, numerous times.” White added, “I’m going crazy. This place is a junk hole. Right now, I’m in a cell that’s overcrowded, big time. Here’s the thing: They don’t really bring me food. The prisoners have to pay for it, but I don’t have money to be paying for that.” White also mentioned that he was so “distraught” that he had wanted to commit suicide and tried to hang himself.
Charges, Trial, and Sentencing
An Iranian prosecutor stated in January of 2019 that White’s arrest was premised on the claim of an “individual plaintiff” and that he might be charged with security-related offenses, but was also being investigated for other, undisclosed possible security crimes.
The White family’s lawyer announced in March 2019 that White had been convicted of two charges—insulting Iran’s leadership and posting private photos on public platforms (namely, uploading a photo of him sitting with his girlfriend)—and sentenced to ten years in prison. The lawyer added that White’s court-appointed lawyer did not know English. However, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo later stated that White was serving a 13-year sentence. White appealed the sentence, but in September of 2019, White’s mother said that he had lost his appeal. White’s family started a GoFundMe account in 2019 to pay for legal representation.
In a conversation with his mother (who recorded the call) in December of 2019 about the legal system’s processing of his case, White claimed that the fix was in against him. “I went to this appellate court thing supposedly,” he said, “and they had a phony hearing. Then they bring up allegations of spying that they said before. I'm like what the hell are these guys doing? They have zero evidence. They made stuff up.”
Prior to his conditional release, the Trump administration largely did not comment on White’s case in particular, while repeatedly calling for Iran to release all its American hostages. In February of 2020, before Iran conditionally released Iran on medical furlough, White’s mother complained about the administration’s treatment of his case, saying, “If it was a priority, they would have brought him back already. I don't think they're paying enough attention.”
When asked about White’s case by a journalist in January 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lauded the administration’s work to get hostages released but demurred from commenting about White. “With respect to the Michael White case in particular, I can’t say much,” Pompeo said. “It’s an ongoing consular matter.” However, in January of 2020, Pompeo tweeted about White, saying, “For the second straight year, U.S. Navy veteran Michael White spent his birthday suffering in a horrible Iranian prison. The Iranian regime must release all American and foreign hostages!” In March of 2020, as the novel coronavirus spread in Iran’s prisons, Pompeo warned Iran that “[t]he United States will hold the Iranian regime directly responsible for any American deaths. Our response will be decisive.”
In March of 2020, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rahman, called on the regime to temporarily release prisoners of conscience and political prisoners.
As the novel coronavirus ravaged Iran in the spring of 2020, and particularly endangered inmates living in the appalling conditions of the Iranian prison system, the regime temporarily released White and tens of thousands of other prisoners. White was freed on a medical furlough on March 19, 2020, but prohibited by the regime from leaving Iran. White was transferred to the custody of the Swiss embassy, which handles U.S. diplomatic interests in Iran, and was immediately flown to Tehran for treatment.
The White family’s spokesman announced on March 25, 2020, that since White’s release, he had exhibited “symptoms consistent with COVID-19” and was hospitalized “in a crowded ward for COVID-19 patients.” The family requested that White be granted “an immediate humanitarian medical evacuation” to the U.S. The New York Times later reported that White had indeed been infected with COVID-19 while imprisoned but had recovered.
White’s mother had previously expressed worry that he would contract COVID-19 and die in prison because his immune system was compromised. She said prison personnel had not properly flushed and cleaned White’s chemotherapy port, which could cause a possibly lethal blood infection.
Michael White left Iran on June 4, 2020, after an apparent U.S.-Iranian deal to exchange White for two Iranians detained in the U.S. for alleged crimes. The release capped off months of negotiations between the two governments and aided by Switzerland, which represents U.S. interests in Iran.
An Iranian official and the White family’s spokesman confirmed in early May of 2020 that the Iranian and American governments were negotiating a deal to send White home in return for the release of an unnamed Iranian-American doctor out on bail in the U.S. Reports later identified the doctor as Majid Taheri, aka Matteo Taerri. Federal prosecutors charged the doctor, a Florida resident, with violating U.S. sanctions by attempting to export to Iran a filter with applications for biological and chemical warfare. Taheri was also charged with evading the Bank Secrecy Act, which requires that any bank transfers of $10,000 or more be reported to the Treasury Department, by setting up transfers under the reporting threshold. Taerri pled guilty but was released on bail in March of 2020 at the request of federal prosecutors because of his possible involvement in a swap for Michael White.
Reuters reported that a prisoner trade might involve deportation from the U.S. of another Iranian, academic Sirous Asghari, who was charged with violating American sanctions on Iran by stealing American trade secrets. Asghari was acquitted in 2019 but detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, which was unable to deport him because he had contracted COVID 19 and, because of the pandemic, the number of flights to Iran were drastically diminished. The aforementioned Iranian official stated that “[t]hese three cases are entangled together, Asgari, White, and the Iranian American doctor.”
On May 11, 2020, President Trump retweeted a link to an article by Time that reported that Iran’s cabinet spokesman had indicated his government’s willingness to negotiate with Iran “without preconditions” about a prisoner exchange.
On June 2, 2020, two days before Tehran permitted White to leave, the U.S. deported Sirous Asghari to Iran. The day of White’s release, the Justice Department also asked a judge to sentence Majid Taheri to time served, and the jurist granted the prosecutors’ request. The U.S. government is allowing Taheri to visit relatives and obtain medical care in Iran and then return to the States.