Iran has imprisoned a Chinese-American Princeton University graduate school student for ten years, accusing him of "infiltrating" the country, and detained President Hassan Rouhani's brother over allegations of financial misconduct, authorities said Sunday.
News of the detentions comes less than two months after relative moderate Rouhani beat a hard-line opponent to win reelection by running in large part on his record of pursuing greater engagement with the West. They were announced by the judiciary, a pillar of hard-liners' influence.
The Chinese-American dual national was identified as Xiyue Wang, a 37-year-old history researcher, according to Mizan Online, a website affiliated with the judiciary. Wang is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University, according to Daniel Day, the Assistant Vice President in the school’s Office of Communications.
“His field is late 19th and early 20th-century Eurasian history,” Day wrote to NBC10. “He was arrested in Iran last summer, while there doing scholarly research on the administrative and cultural history of the late Qajar dynasty in connection with his Ph.D. dissertation. Since his arrest, the university has worked with Mr. Wang's family, the U.S. government, private counsel and others to facilitate his release.”
He was not previously known to be among the handful of Americans detained in Iran.
"It was verified and determined that he was gathering (information) and was involved in infiltration," Judiciary spokesman Gholamhosein Mohseni Ejehi said during a routine press briefing.
Ejehi did not identify Wang by name. But hours after he spoke, Mizan published an article attributed to an unnamed source that revealed his identity and included several photos of him apparently taken from the internet.
The Mizan article said he was born in Beijing and entered Iran as a researcher. It pointed to graduate studies he did at Princeton University in 2013 and 2014, and described him as a fluent speaker of Persian.
“We were very distressed by the charges brought against him in connection with his scholarly activities, and by his subsequent conviction and sentence,” Ray wrote. “His family and the university are distressed at his continued imprisonment and are hopeful that he will be released after his case is heard by the appellate authorities in Tehran. In the interim, the university will continue to do everything it can to be supportive of Mr. Wang and his family. “
Wang was arrested on Aug. 8, 2016 and is accused of passing confidential information about Iran to the U.S. State Department, Princeton's Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies, the Harvard Kennedy School and the British Institute of Persian Studies, according to Mizan. It alleged he recorded some 4,500 pages of digital documents.
The U.S. State Department was not immediately able to provide details on the case. It said its citizens' safety and security is a top priority.
The U.S. does not maintain formal diplomatic relations with Tehran and warns its citizens traveling there that they risk arrest or being barred from leaving Iran.
"The Iranian regime continues to detain U.S. citizens and other foreigners on fabricated national-security related changes," it said in a statement to The Associated Press. "We call for the immediate release of all U.S. citizens unjustly detained in Iran so they can return to their families."
The arrest of the president's brother, meanwhile, stunned many in Iran.
Ejehi said the brother, Hossein Fereidoun, was taken into custody over allegations of financial impropriety and is eligible for bail, but has not paid it yet.
Fereidoun is a close confidante of the moderate president, a cleric who changed his surname to Rouhani, meaning "spiritual," after joining the seminary decades ago.
Fereidoun was part of the negotiating team that ultimately sealed Iran's landmark nuclear deal with world powers in 2015, winning the country relief from international sanctions in exchange for limits on its atomic energy program.
The deal was unpopular with Iranian hard-liners, whose influence runs deep within the judiciary. They saw the nuclear deal as giving too much away in exchange for too little.
Fereidoun has long been a target of hard-liners, who have accused him of misdeeds including money laundering and misappropriation of government funds.
The unproven allegations were a flashpoint during the May presidential election, with the president's hard-line challengers demanding that the judiciary investigate accusations against Fereidoun.
Wang is one of several Americans in Iranian custody.
Iranian-American art gallery manager Karan Vafadari was detained along with his Iranian wife last year. They have yet to be convicted of a crime.
Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi and his 81-year-old father, Baquer Namazi, are each serving 10-year sentences for "cooperating with the hostile American government."
Another Iranian-American, Robin Shahini, was released on bail last year after staging a weeks-long hunger strike while serving an 18-year prison sentence for "collaboration with a hostile government."
Still missing is former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran in 2007 while on an unauthorized CIA mission.
Also in an Iranian prison is Nizar Zakka, a U.S. permanent resident from Lebanon who advocates for internet freedom. He lives in Washington D.C. and has done work for the U.S. government. He was sentenced to 10 years behind bars last year after being accused of espionage-related charges.