Iran releases TV footage of jailed Chinese-American academic Xiyue Wang, convicted of espionage

Wang is serving a 10-year sentence for spying for the US, but Princeton University says he was simply conducting valid historical research at libraries and other archives

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 November, 2017, 8:54am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 November, 2017, 9:44pm

Iranian state television has aired a video featuring a Chinese-American graduate student now serving a 10-year prison sentence for allegedly “infiltrating” the country while doing doctoral research.

The new video aired Sunday night about Xiyue Wang comes after Iranian state television earlier focused on British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Wang was conducting doctoral research on Iran’s Qajar dynasty when he was arrested in Iran for spying on behalf of the US, amid the detention of others with Western ties.

Iran sentences Chinese-American Princeton historian Xiyue Wang to 10 years for espionage

The footage aired Sunday accused Wang of trying to take around 4,500 documents from the country. An interrogator asks Wang why he did it, with other footage showing him emotional.

On Thursday, Iranian state television aired footage about Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is serving a five-year prison sentence for allegedly planning the “soft toppling” of Iran’s government.

The release of the footage is likely part of an attempt to pressure the US and Britain as London considers making a US$530 million payment to Tehran.

On Thursday, Iranian state television aired a seven-minute special report on Zaghari-Ratcliffe. It included close-ups of an April 2010 pay stub from her previous employer, the BBC World Service Trust.

It also included an email from June 2010 in which she wrote about the “ZigZag Academy,” a BBC World Service Trust project in which the trust trained “young aspiring journalists from Iran and Afghanistan through a secure online platform.”

Zaghari-Ratcliffe left the BBC in 2011 and then joined the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency. Both her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, and Thomson Reuters repeatedly have stressed she was not training journalists or involved in any work regarding Iran while there.

The state television report comes as British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson faces criticism after he told a parliamentary committee that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “teaching people journalism” when she was arrested last year. Though Johnson later corrected himself, the Iranian television report made a point to highlight them.

Speaking to The Associated Press on Sunday, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband said the report and other Iranian comments about his wife seemed timed to exert as much pressure as possible on the British government. He said the material appeared to be from his wife’s email, which investigators from the hard-line Revolutionary Guard immediately got access to after her arrest.

“It’s trying to justify the new charges,” Ratcliffe said.

The report comes as Britain and Iran discuss the release of some 400 million pounds held by London, a payment Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi made for Chieftain tanks that were never delivered. The shah abandoned the throne in 1979 and the Islamic Revolution soon installed the clerically overseen system that endures today.

Authorities in London and Tehran deny that the payment has any link to Zaghari-Ratcliffe. However, a prisoner exchange in January 2016 that freed Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and three other Iranian-Americans also saw the United States make a US$400 million cash delivery to Iran the same day. That money too involved undelivered military equipment from the shah’s era, though some US politicians have criticised the delivery as a ransom payment.

Late Sunday, Iranian state TV aired a feature focused on Wang, a Chinese-born American graduate student at Princeton who is accused of passing confidential information about Iran to the US State Department. He was arrested while conducting research on the Qajar dynasty that once ruled Iran for his doctorate in late 19th and early 20th century Eurasian history, according to Princeton officials, who said he was in Iran to learn Farsi and conduct research for his dissertation.

Authorities have alleged he scanned some 4,500 pages of digital documents, paid thousands of dollars to access archives he needed and sought access to confidential areas of Tehran libraries. State TV aired footage of him in what appeared to be an Iranian courtroom, those around him blurred out, as well as footage of him emotional and later talking to a camera, as well as an image of his Iranian visa and a school ID.

“About Iran in that regard, the more knowledge the United States possesses about Iran, the better for its policy toward Iran,” he said in the footage. “There is no doubt about it. It is quite obvious.”

Wang was arrested on August 8, 2016. Princeton, his wife and others had been quietly working toward his release when Iran publicly announced his prison sentence in July.

Wang’s wife, Hua Qu, tsaid on Sunday that she hasn’t spoken with the US State Department about the video but she’s reiterating the allegations against her husband are untrue. Qu notes the video’s airing come just before the mid-December deadline for Congress to decide whether economic sanctions lifted under the Iran nuclear accord should be re-imposed.

Iran has said Wang is a citizen of the US and a second unspecified country, widely understood to be China.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has denied Wang is a Chinese national, saying China does not ­recognise dual nationality. “As he has American citizenship, I can tell you that he is ­definitely not a Chinese national,” said spokesman Lu Kang.

Analysts and family members of those detained in Iran have suggested that hardliners in the Islamic Republic’s security agencies use prisoners as bargaining chips for money or influence. A UN panel in September described “an emerging pattern involving the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of dual nationals” in Iran.

Others with ties to the West detained in Iran include Iranian-Canadian national Abdolrasoul Dorri Esfahani, a member of Iran’s 2015 nuclear negotiating team, who is believed to be serving a five-year prison sentence on espionage charges.