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US Navy Veteran's New Account of Iran Detention Deemed Credible by Sources

FILE - In this image provided by the U.S. State Department, Michael White holds an American flag as he poses for a photo June 4, 2020, with U.S. special envoy for Iran Brian Hook at the Zurich, Switzerland, airport after White’s release from Iran.

American Navy veteran Michael White, whom Iran freed in a 2020 prisoner swap with the U.S., has shared new details of his 20-month detention in the Islamic Republic, including alleged physical abuses that he said he suffered at the hands of Iranian guards.

White shared the details with VOA Persian in a one-hour-and-45-minute conversation filmed in San Diego, California on July 8. VOA dubbed the interview into Persian and published it on August 17.

It was only the second published media interview with White since his release in a June 2020 U.S.-Iran prisoner exchange. His description to VOA of his detention and alleged mistreatment in Iran went beyond the information he shared in his first post-release interview with the Associated Press, published in January.

VOA could not independently verify White's entire account of his detention as it is barred from reporting inside Iran.

U.S. Navy veteran Michael White speaks to VOA Persian in San Diego, California, on July 8, 2021. It was only his second interview since being released by Iran in a June 2020 U.S.-Iran prisoner swap. (VOA Persian)
U.S. Navy veteran Michael White speaks to VOA Persian in San Diego, California, on July 8, 2021. It was only his second interview since being released by Iran in a June 2020 U.S.-Iran prisoner swap. (VOA Persian)

After publishing the White interview in August, VOA also learned that he made misleading statements in the first part of his narrative about the three trips that he made to Iran in the past decade in pursuit of a marriage to his Iranian girlfriend. His last trip, to the northeastern city of Mashhad in July 2018, led to his arrest and sentencing by Iran to 10 years in prison for alleged national security offenses that U.S. officials and his supporters dismissed as trumped up.

Those alleged offenses included spying, violating privacy laws and insulting Iran's supreme leader.

In the interview, White said he explained to Iranian officials and others that he was traveling to Iran as a single man and said he brought documentation with him to try to prove his unmarried status to his girlfriend, her family and Iranian authorities. But legal records and statements later obtained by VOA show that White, 49, married a Mexican woman and U.S. permanent resident, Guadalupe White, 63, in April 2004 and there has been no evidence of a subsequent dissolution of the marriage.

When asked by VOA for a response to 2019 news reports naming Guadalupe White as his wife, White said he is not and "never" has been married. He provided no evidence to prove his assertions.

In analyzing the second part of White's narrative about his detention in Iran, VOA found that some of the details he shared were consistent with another account of his detention provided to VOA by a former Iranian cellmate of his at Vakilabad prison in Mashhad.

Ali Gholilou, an exiled Iranian women's rights activist now based in Istanbul, sent VOA a voice message last month about his own detention at Vakilabad, which overlapped with that of White.

Gholilou said White was brought to Vakilabad in mid-September 2018 and detained in ward three with several other foreigners including a Pakistani and a Kuwaiti who spoke English. He said he encountered White several times in a recreational area and heard from an English-speaking Iranian prisoner that White repeatedly asked why he had been arrested.

White, in his VOA interview, gave a similar timeframe for his transfer to Vakilabad from an initial two-month detention at an Iranian intelligence ministry-run detention center. He also said he was placed in ward three of the prison with other foreigners including a Pakistani and an English-speaking Kuwaiti and had repeatedly asked authorities at the time why he was arrested.

Gholilou said he was released from the prison about 20 to 25 days after White's arrival.

Other aspects of White's account of suffering alleged physical abuses in Iranian custody were deemed credible by two sources whom VOA contacted in recent weeks — a second former U.S. hostage in Iran and a prominent Washington-based Iranian rights activist.

White told his VOA interviewer that Iranian intelligence agents sexually assaulted him after detaining him in July 2018 as he was en route to Mashhad's airport to return to the U.S. White said the agents grabbed his crotch several times as they walked him blindfolded through the hallways of the intelligence jail.

Roya Boroumand, co-founder of Washington-based rights group Abdorrahman Boroumand Center, told VOA it is "possible" that White suffered such abuse, given documented cases of other prisoners in Iran saying they were sexually assaulted to humiliate them into making confessions of guilt for supposed crimes.

White also said in his VOA interview that his previously reported suicide attempt at the intelligence jail prompted agents to beat him up. He said he had been distraught due to not being told why he was being detained and tried to hang himself inside his cell with a prison jumpsuit that he tied into a noose. CNN first reported the suicide attempt in January 2020, citing audio of a phone call made by White to his mother in the U.S.

Xiyue Wang, a Chinese American historian who was detained in Iran for three years on national security charges also rejected as bogus by the U.S., told VOA that he too believes White's assertions of suffering physical abuse are credible. Wang was freed in a December 2019 prisoner swap between Washington and Tehran.

"There is a reason why the Iranian regime keeps most foreign hostages in harsh prison conditions rather than house arrest," Wang said. "The regime wants to treat them in the way they imagine that Iranian prisoners are treated abroad. The regime wants tit for tat."

VOA asked Iran's U.N. mission in New York to respond to White's assertions that Iranian guards physically abused him in detention, sending multiple messages by phone, email and Twitter on August 20. There was no response.

In the final part of the VOA interview, White said he is considering suing the Iranian government for what he called the devastating impact of his detention. VOA's unanswered questions to Iran's U.N. mission in New York included one about White's threatened lawsuit.

Iranian authorities granted White a medical furlough from Vakilabad in March 2020 after he developed COVID-19 symptoms, placing him in the care of Swiss diplomats. In his VOA interview, White said the Swiss diplomats confirmed that he had contracted the coronavirus, oversaw his treatment in Tehran until he recovered, and accommodated him for several weeks at a Tehran hotel.

Iran did not allow White to leave the country until the June 2020 prisoner exchange with Washington. As part of the deal, the U.S. granted an early release to an Iranian American medical doctor, Matteo Taerri, also known as Majid Taheri, who had served 16 months in prison for violating U.S. sanctions against Iran and U.S. banking laws. Taheri flew to Iran days after White flew to Zurich on the first leg of his return to the U.S.

This article originated in VOA's Persian Service. Kambiz Tavana contributed from San Diego.