WASHINGTON — Michael White had just arrived at a grim Iranian prison when a curious fellow inmate, an English-speaking Iranian, approached him in the courtyard for a conversation.
The American didn’t reveal much at first, but it was the start of an unlikely friendship between White, a Navy veteran imprisoned on espionage charges he considered unfounded, and Mahdi Vatankhah, a young Iranian political activist whose positions on social issues caught his attention. the anger of the government.
As the men bonded behind bars over a shared interest in politics and human rights, they developed a bond that proved vital to both.
Vatankhah, during his detention and after his release, assisted White by providing White’s mother with crucial, first-hand accounts of her son’s status in prison and by forwarding to her the letters White had written while incarcerated. Once released, White didn’t forget. He successfully lobbied this year for Vatankhah to be admitted to the United States, allowing the men to be reunited last spring at a Los Angeles airport, something neither could have imagined when they first meeting in prison years earlier.
“He risked his life to get information for me when I was in prison in Iran. He really, really did it,” White said in an interview alongside Vatankhah. “I told him I would do everything in my power to get him here because I felt it would be for his safety in his own life. And I also felt that it could attract an important member of society here.
This year, White received permission from Vatankhah to live temporarily in the United States under a government program known as humanitarian parole, which allows people to enter for urgent humanitarian reasons or if there there is a significant public benefit.
Vatankhah told AP that he had always dreamed of coming to the United States. When he landed, “it was like the best time of my life.” My whole life changed.
White, 50, a Southern California native who spent 13 years in the Navy, was arrested in Iran in 2018 after traveling to the country to pursue a romantic relationship with a woman he met online . He has been imprisoned on various charges, including espionage charges that he says are false, as well as allegations of insulting Iran’s supreme leader.
He endured what he says was torture and sexual abuse, an ordeal he documented in a handwritten diary he kept secretly behind bars, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison in what the U.S. government called it unjustified detention.
Vatankhah, now 24, said he had been imprisoned several times since his teens because of his involvement in left-wing causes and his vocal criticism of the Iranian government, including through protests, social media posts and articles in university newspapers. He met White in 2018 after one of those arrests, when Vatankhah was accused of spreading propaganda against the government in Tehran.
Although Vatankhah was later released, he was arrested again, this time only to find himself in the same cell as White in Iran’s Mashhad prison.
During their friendship, Vatankhah helped White navigate his imprisonment and better understand the justice system, acting as an interpreter to help him communicate with guards and inmates. In early 2020, while Vatankhah was on leave, he also became a vital conduit to the outside world for White.
Using contact information White had provided him, Vatankhah contacted Jonathan Franks, a consultant in the United States to the families of American hostages and detainees who was working on White’s case and later helped lead the release process humanitarian parole of Vatankhah. He also spoke with White’s mother and smuggled White’s letters out.
The detailed information about White, his status and his health – he suffered from cancer and COVID-19 in prison – came at a crucial time, providing a kind of proof of life at a time of heightened tensions between the United States. United and Iran due to a US drone strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, who led the Quds Expeditionary Force of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guards.
White was released in a June 2020 prisoner swap, exchanged for an American-Iranian doctor imprisoned in the United States for violating U.S. sanctions laws. Vatankhah, released the same year, went to Türkiye.
White argued in his March application on Vatankhah’s behalf that his friend met the criteria for compassionate parole because, although he had moved to Turkey, he continued to face harassment because of his political views . Vatankhah wrote in his own petition that the situation was dangerous for him in Turkey. He noted that Turkish police had searched his home and that he still faced deportation to Iran.
Paris Etemadi Scott, a California lawyer who worked with White and Vatankhah and filed a humanitarian parole request on behalf of the Iranian, said Vatankhah’s assistance to an American — a veteran, no less — strengthened the legitimacy and urgency of his request as it added to the possibility that Vatankhah would face imminent harm.
Although many candidates lack meaningful supporting documentation, “Mahdi had an incredible amount of evidence showing that he was in fact incarcerated on numerous occasions,” she said.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it does not discuss individual humanitarian parole cases. A State Department spokesperson said in a statement that the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs worked hard to secure White’s release in 2020, and that after learning of the case of Vatankhah, “he worked hand in hand with multiple partners in the United States. government” to obtain parole.
Vatankhah now lives in San Diego, where White is from. Vatankhah said his humanitarian parole is good for one year, but he has already applied for asylum, which would allow him to remain in the United States. He obtained a work permit and found work as a caregiver.
He also enjoys the freedom to freely share his political opinions without fear of reprisal.
“I like to express my ideas here where I can. I can continue to use my freedom to speak against the Iranian regime: »
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