By Mahmoud Hakamian
Although it was already reported last week that the US Navy veteran Michael White had been sentenced to prison in Iran for an unspecified national security charge, new information about his case came to light on Monday, including the length of the term he has been ordered to serve. White’s 10-year sentence is unsurprising in view of the fact that multiple other Western nationals have received the same sentence, including the Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi, his elderly father Baquer Namazi, and the Princeton graduate student Xiyue Wang.
In each of these cases, accusations against the detainee has been only vaguely expressed, and accounts of the proceedings suggested that Iranian authorities worked to build a case upon little to no pre-existing foundation. In White’s case, the arrest followed his traveling to Iran for a third time in order to meet with a woman with whom he was pursuing a romantic relationship. Although the arrest took place last July, it was not made known publicly until January. Thereafter, Iranian officials stated that White was not being held on national security charges, but then contradicted that announcement and later affirmed that his sentence was based in part on a security complaint.
The latest information on the case finally discloses specific charges. Previously, these were absent not only from public reporting but also apparently from what little information was communicated to White himself. Last week Tuesday, a report by IranWire gave the impression that Iranian authorities had specifically prevented White from communicating with the outside world about anything other than his deteriorating health condition. This in turn lends credence to the common assumption that Western nationals are typically held as hostages by the Islamic Republic in an attempt to pressure their home countries for the provision of political concessions.
According to IranWire, the judge in White’s case expressly banned him from receiving visitors or communicating with his family by phone. This apparently arbitrary treatment also prevented him from receiving consular assistance from the Swiss embassy for a period of months. Because Iran and the United States have no direct diplomatic relations, American consular affairs are channeled through Swiss diplomatic intermediaries. Even after White received such assistance, information about his case remained unclear, and this is still true in the wake of the latest disclosures.
What is known is that the US citizen was convicted in separate sessions on March 6 and March 9, after being charged with insulting the supreme leader and posting a private photograph publicly. The latter charge may be related to social media content that depicted White seated beside the Iranian girlfriend he had gone to visit. Physical contact between unmarried and unrelated women and men is illegal in the Islamic Republic, and internet communication is heavily censored.
The charge of sharing private content is presumably the “private complaint” that was initially cited by Iranian authorities as the reason for his arrest. Meanwhile, Reuters indicates that no plausible explanation has been put forward for the charge of insulting the supreme leader, which may have been added to the case after the fact, in keeping with Tehran’s practice of interrogating political prisoners in order to build cases against them from scratch.
This practice often involves the use of torture to illicit false confessions, as in the case of eight Iranian conservationists who are reportedly still awaiting sentencing on charges that include “spreading corruption on Earth.” That case has taken on a high profile since the initial arrests in January and February of last year. A ninth conservationist, Kavous Seyed-Emami, died while in police custody, likely as a result of torture. And owing to his status as an Iranian-Canadian dual national, the case helped to underscore the regime’s crackdowns both on the domestic activist community and on persons with ties to the West.
Both of these phenomena have been subject to vigorous international advocacy in recent weeks and months. On March 7, Babak Namazi, the brother of Siamak and son of Baquer, delivered remarks before the US House Foreign Affairs Committee and pushed for more action to secure the release of these and other US citizens. That same week, governments and human rights organizations condemned the appointment of a well-known human rights violator, Ebrahim Raisi, to the head of Iran’s judiciary, noting that it underscored Iran’s rejection of international human rights principles and the potential worsening of an already difficult situation for political prisoners and Iranian society on the whole.