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Updated: 4th February 2020 05:50 World

Chinese-American freed from Iran in prisoner swap

The United States and Iran each freed a prisoner on Saturday in a rare swap, an act of co-operation between two longtime foes whose ties have worsened since President Donald Trump took office.

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Princeton grad student Xiyue Wang was accused of spying while researching

The U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, Edward McMullen, left, greets Xiyue Wang in Zurich, Switzerland, on Saturday. (U.S. Embassy Switzerland via The Associated Press)

The United States and Iran each freed a prisoner on Saturday in a rare swap, an act of co-operation between two longtime foes whose ties have worsened since President Donald Trump took office.

Trump said Xiyue Wang, a U.S. citizen held in Iran for three years on spying charges, was returning to the United States. An Iranian official said that Iranian Massoud Soleimani had been freed from detention in the United States.

A senior U.S. administration official said Washington was hopeful that Wang's release would lead to the freeing of other Americans held in Iran and was a sign Tehran is willing to come to the table to talk about other issues.

Wang appeared to be in good health and humour, he said.

Switzerland facilitated the swap and Iranian state news agency IRNA said Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif welcomed Soleimani in Zurich, where it said the swap took place. It said Soleimani was expected to return to Iran in the coming hours.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, shakes hand with Iranian scientist Massoud Soleimani prior to leaving Zurich for Tehran on Saturday. (Javad Zarif Twitter account via The Associated Press)

In a statement issued by the White House, Trump made no mention of the freeing of Soleimani but thanked the Swiss government for its help in negotiating Wang's release.

"Freeing Americans held captive is of vital importance to my administration, and we will continue to work hard to bring home all our citizens wrongfully held captive overseas," he said.

Zarif said earlier the prisoner swap was imminent. Later he posted pictures on Twitter of himself with Soleimani talking on board an Iranian plane.

"Glad that Professor Massoud Soleimani and Mr. Xiyue Wang will be joining their families shortly. Many thanks to all engaged, particularly the Swiss government," Zarif tweeted.

Released after weeks of negotiations

IRNA reported that Wang was released based on "Islamic clemency."

The senior U.S. official said the release was the result of three or four weeks of intensive negotiations.

"We're hopeful this will lead us to further success with Iran," he told reporters in a conference call.

Xiyue Wang's son, left, attends a vigil at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., on Sept. 15, 2017. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

"I'm hopeful that the release of Mr. Wang is a sign that the Iranians are realizing that the practice of hostage-taking diplomacy really should come to an end if Iran wants to rejoin the international community," he said.

Switzerland represents U.S. diplomatic interests in Iran, since Washington and Tehran cut diplomatic ties shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Wang, a Princeton University graduate student, was convicted on espionage charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2017. His family and the university have always said he was in Iran for research into a history degree and denied spying.

According to Princeton, he was born in Beijing in 1980, emigrated to the United States in 2001 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2009. His wife and child are Chinese citizens. China, which normally requires its citizens to give up their nationality when they become citizens of another country, has not commented publicly on the case.

Soleimani, a stem cell expert, was arrested at Chicago airport in October 2018 for allegedly attempting to export biological materials to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.

The senior U.S. administration official said Soleimani had been due to appear in court in the United States on Dec. 11 but the charges against him had been dropped.

'Three long years'

Another senior U.S. official said Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, accompanied Soleimani to Switzerland to make the exchange and Hook and Wang were now "en route to Landstuhl in Germany where Wang will be examined by doctors."

The official said Wang was expected to stay in Germany for several days. Landstuhl is home to an American military medical centre.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a tweet that he was "pleased that the Iranian government has been constructive in this matter." He added "we will not rest until we bring every American detained in Iran and around the world back home."

Hua Qu, Wang's wife, told Reuters she was "happy."

"Our family is complete once again," she said in a separate statement. "Our son Shaofan and I have waited three long years for this day and it's hard to express in words how excited we are to be reunited with Xiyue.

"We are thankful to everyone who helped make this happen."

Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese businessman resident in the United States who was freed in June after four years in prison in Iran, told Reuters he was the first to know of the release and had informed Wang's mother and wife.

Heading to Washington on Monday

"Wang's wife has got a visa to travel to Germany. Wang is expected to come to Washington, D.C., on Monday," said Zakka.

Washington has demanded that Iran release all the Americans it is holding, including father and son Siamak and Baquer Namazi; Michael R. White, a Navy veteran imprisoned last year, and Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent missing since 2007.

Several dozen Iranians are being held in U.S. prisons, many of them for breaking sanctions.

Tensions have heightened between Iran and the United States since Trump last year pulled Washington out of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers and reimposed sanctions that have crippled Tehran's economy. Iran has responded by gradually scaling back its commitments under the agreement.

Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter who was released from Iranian jail in 2016 after being held for 18 months on espionage accusations, said on Twitter: "I'm overjoyed this morning to wake up to the great news that Xiyue Wang is finally free," adding that his imprisonment was "long & unjust."

 

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