WASHINGTON (AP) — Michael White had solely lately arrived in a grim Iranian jail when a curious fellow prisoner, an English-speaking Iranian, approached him within the courtyard for a dialog.
The American didn’t reveal a lot at first, nevertheless it was the start of an unlikely friendship between White, a Navy veteran imprisoned on spying prices he says have been unfounded, and Mahdi Vatankhah, a younger Iranian political activist whose positions on social points had drawn his authorities’s ire.
As the boys related behind bars over a shared curiosity in politics and human rights, they developed a bond that proved very important for each.
Vatankhah, whereas in custody and after his launch, helped White by offering White’s mom with essential, firsthand accounts about her son’s standing in jail and by passing alongside letters White had written whereas he was locked up. As soon as freed, White didn’t overlook. He pushed efficiently this yr for Vatankhah’s admission to the USA, permitting the boys to be reunited final spring inside a Los Angeles airport, one thing neither might have envisioned once they first met in jail years earlier.
“He risked his life to get the knowledge out for me once I was within the jail in Iran. He actually, actually did,” White stated in an interview alongside Vatankhah. “I informed him I’d do all the pieces I might in my energy to get him right here as a result of I felt, one, that will be for his security in his personal life. And I additionally felt he might get an excellent contributing member of society right here.”
This yr, White obtained permission for Vatankhah to dwell briefly within the U.S. underneath a authorities program generally known as humanitarian parole, which permits folks in for pressing humanitarian causes or if there’s a vital public profit.
Vatankhah informed AP he had dreamed about coming to the U.S. ever since he might keep in mind. When he landed, “It was like the very best second of my life. My complete life modified.”
White, 50, a Southern California native who spent 13 years within the Navy, was arrested in Iran in 2018 after touring to the nation to pursue a romantic relationship with a girl he met on-line. He was jailed on varied prices, together with espionage accusations that he calls bogus, in addition to allegations of insulting Iran’s supreme chief.
He endured what he says was torture and sexual abuse, an ordeal he documented in a handwritten diary that he secretly maintained behind bars, and was sentenced to 10 years in jail in what the U.S. authorities has stated was a wrongful detention.
Vatankhah, now 24, stated he had been out and in of jail since he was a young person due to his involvement in left-leaning causes and vocal criticism of the Iranian authorities, together with via protests, social media posts and college newspaper items. He met White in 2018 after one such arrest when Vatankhah confronted accusations of spreading propaganda towards Tehran’s authorities.
Although Vatankhah was later launched, he was arrested once more, this time winding up in the identical cell as White in Iran’s Mashhad jail.
Throughout the course of their friendship, Vatankhah helped White navigate his imprisonment and higher perceive the judicial system, functioning as an interpreter to assist him talk with guards and inmates. In early 2020, whereas Vatankhah was out on furlough, he additionally grew to become an important conduit to the surface world for White.
Utilizing contact info White had given him, Vatankhah bought in contact with Jonathan Franks, a marketing consultant within the U.S. for households of American hostages and detainees who was engaged on White’s case and later helped spearhead the humanitarian parole course of for Vatankhah. He additionally spoke with White’s mom and smuggled out White’s letters.
The detailed details about White, his standing and his well being — he suffered from most cancers and COVID-19 in jail — got here at an important time, offering a proof-of-life of kinds at a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran on account of a U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who led the expeditionary Quds Pressure of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.
White was launched in a June 2020 prisoner swap, exchanged for an American-Iranian doctor imprisoned within the U.S. for violating American sanctions legal guidelines. Vatankhah, launched the identical yr, made his solution to Turkey.
White argued in his March utility on Vatankhah’s behalf that his good friend met the factors for humanitarian parole as a result of, regardless of having relocated to Turkey, he was persevering with to face harassment on account of his political viewpoints. Vatankhah wrote in his personal petition that the scenario was unsafe for him in Turkey. He famous that Turkish police had raided his residence and that he remained prone to deportation to Iran.
Paris Etemadi Scott, a California lawyer who has labored with White and Vatankhah and filed the humanitarian parole utility on the Iranian’s behalf, stated Vatankhah’s help to an American — a veteran, no much less — enhanced the legitimacy and urgency of his petition as a result of it added to the potential that Vatankhah might face imminent hurt.
Whereas many candidates wouldn’t have vital supporting documentation, “Mahdi had this superb quantity of proof to point out that he was the truth is incarcerated again and again,” she stated.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Companies stated it doesn’t focus on particular person humanitarian parole circumstances. A State Division spokesman stated in an announcement that the workplace of the division’s particular presidential envoy for hostage affairs had labored arduous to safe White’s launch in 2020, and after studying of Vatankhah’s case, “labored hand-in-hand with a number of companions within the U.S. authorities” to safe the parole.
Vatankhah is now residing in San Diego, the place White is from. Vatankhah stated his humanitarian parole is sweet for one yr, however he already has utilized for asylum, which might permit him to stay within the U.S. He is obtained a piece allow and has discovered work as a caregiver.
He is additionally having fun with freedom to share his political beliefs freely with out worry of retribution.
“I like to specific my concepts right here the place I can. I can proceed to make use of my freedom to speak towards the Iranian regime,:”
Observe Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP