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Xiyue Wang released from detainment in Iran

Asian man stands behind Asian woman and toddler seated. There is an empty glass in the frame and the toddler is in a high chair eating dinner.
Xiyue Wang GS with his wife Hua Qu GS ‘21 and their son.
Courtesy of Hua Qu for the Office of Communications

Xiyue Wang, a University graduate student who has been held in Iran for alleged espionage since 2016, has been released, according to a press release sent by President Donald Trump around 6 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, Dec. 7.

“After more than three years of being held prisoner in Iran, Xiyue Wang is returning to the United States,” Trump wrote. “Freeing Americans held captive is of vital importance to my Administration, and we will continue to work hard to bring home all our citizens wrongfully held captive overseas.”


Xiyue Wang was detained in Iran on Aug. 7, 2016, while conducting research for his work in the University history department. He was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 10 years in an Iranian prison. In 2018, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions concluded that Wang’s arrest had no legal basis and that he should be released “immediately.”

On Dec. 5, MTV Lebanon initially reported that Wang had been freed by Iranian authorities after Swiss mediation. At that time, BBC Persian allegedly had a U.S. source stating that the story could not be confirmed. However, early this morning, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed Switzerland’s involvement via Twitter.

“We thank the Swiss government for facilitating the return of Mr. Wang, and are pleased the Iranian government has been constructive in this manner,” he wrote.

Upon his release, Xiyue Wang was presented an American flag by U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland Ed McMullen. 

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated that Wang’s release is part of a prisoner swap, with the United States freeing Iranian scientist Massoud Soleimani. In an interview in Sept. 2019, Zarif said he had offered to swap Wang and an “Iranian professor” over a year ago.


Soleimani had been arrested in the United States in 2016 for allegedly violating trade sanctions by attempting to transport biological material to Iran. Prior to the prisoner swap, Soleimani was facing a federal trial in Georgia, according to Bloomberg.

Wang has not seen his wife, Hua Qu, or son since 2016. His wife has been a strong advocate in the University community, working to bring awareness about his imprisonment. In a statement posted to the “Free Xiyue Wang” Group’s Twitter account, Hua Qu stated that “[her] family is now complete.” 

“Our son Shaofan and I have waited three long years for this day and it’s hard to express in words how excited we are to be reunited with Xiyue,” she wrote. “We are thankful to everyone who helped make this happen.”

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Stephen Kotkin, the John P. Birkelund ’52 Professor in History and International Affairs and Wang’s thesis advisor prior to his imprisonment, told The Daily Princetonian in an email that his “joy is beyond words.”

“Once Wang finishes an expected medical examination at the U.S. medical facility in Germany, and returns home to his family and colleagues, he’ll resume his work on his PhD full-time,” Kotkin wrote. “In fact, while braving wrongful imprisonment in Iran, he had continued his work as best he could, reading books, studying new languages, and writing in the prison.”

Kotkin also noted that, despite Wang’s ordeals, his “profound admiration for Persian culture, deep sympathy for peoples of the Muslim religion, intense curiosity about local governance practices, and an unquenchable thirst for historical study of the entire region” has remained unchanged.

“His love for the life of the mind helped him endure his unjust ordeal, and will enable him to complete his degree with distinction,” Kotkin emphasized.

Since Wang’s detainment in 2016, various graduate students and friends of Wang have been active advocates for his release. In a statement to the ‘Prince,’ the “Free Xiyue Wang” group president Michael McGovern GS wrote that the group is “beyond excited.”


Hua Qu, Xiyue Wang’s wife, speaks during a vigil in October 2019, as Michael McGovern GS, President of “Free Xiyue Wang,” looks on.

“Hua Qu has worked tirelessly on behalf of her husband, and now it is time that we as a community prepare to welcome Xiyue Wang home,” McGovern wrote.

In the past three years since Wang’s imprisonment, the “Free Xiyue Wang” group has held vigils and Days of Action advocating for Wang’s release.

In addition, the Asian American Students Association (AASA) has contributed substantial support to the group and has “hosted informational community meetings and tabling events specifically designed for contacting government representatives” to raise awareness among the undergraduate population.

“We are overjoyed and relieved to hear that Mr. Wang has finally been released and will be able to reunite with his wife and son, who he has been apart from for far too long,” the AASA executive board wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ “Going forward, we plan to continue collaborating with the graduate students to provide any support that Mr. Wang and his family may need.”

The University itself had also taken an active role in advocating for Wang’s release. University spokesperson Ben Chang, in an email to the ‘Prince,’ gave the following statement from an unnamed University official.

“Throughout Wang’s imprisonment, Princeton University had formal and informal conversations with government officials and others advocating for his release,” the University official wrote. “Princeton also worked to directly support Wang, working to ensure that fellow students and faculty were able to remain in touch with Wang through regular, at times daily, phone calls.”

In a Dec. 7 statement, President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 expressed his joy regarding Wang’s release, and his gratitude towards all parties who mediated the release.

“We would like to extend our thanks to the United States government, the government of Switzerland, and the students, faculty and staff who continued to advocate for Xiyue’s freedom throughout this ordeal,” he wrote in a statement.

Iran is currently holding at least four other U.S. citizens as prisoners, according to Reuters.

In his tweet, Pompeo noted that the State Department “will not rest until we bring back every American detained in Iran and around the world back home to their loved ones.”