A former US soldier received unexpected help while imprisoned in Iran.

Michael White, a Navy veteran who was imprisoned in Iran for several years on spying charges, embraces Mahdi Vatankhah, Michael’s former prison partner and an Iranian political activist, at Los Angeles International Airport (AP Photo/JC Hong)

michael white He had just arrived at a gloomy Iranian prison when a curious fellow prisoner, an Iranian who spoke English, approached him in the courtyard to strike up a conversation.

The American didn’t say much at first, but it was a start unlikely friendship between whitesA Navy veteran was jailed on espionage charges, which he described as baseless, and Mahdi VatankhahA young Iranian political activist whose stance on social issues angered her government.

When two people were sent behind bars for their general interest in politics And this human rightThey developed a bond that was important to both of them.

VatankhahWhile he was detained and after his release, Helped White by providing important information to his mother and spoke directly about his son’s situation in prison and sent him letters that White had written while he was incarcerated. once free, White did not forget, this year Vatankhah admitted to the United StatesWhich allowed the two to meet at the Los Angeles airport last spring, something neither of them could have imagined when they met in prison years ago.

“When I was in jail in Iran he risked his life to get information from me. “He really did,” White said in an interview with Vatankhah. ,I told him I would do everything in my power to get him here Because first of all, he felt it would be for the safety of his own life. And I also felt that I could be a great contributing member of society here.

Michael White obtained permission for Vatankhah to reside temporarily in the United States under a government program called humanitarian parole. (AP Photo/Jay C. Hong)

this year, White obtained permission for Vatankhah to reside temporarily in the United States under a government program known as humanitarian paroleWhich allows people to enter for urgent humanitarian reasons or if there is an important public benefit.

Vatankhah announced AP Ever since he could remember, he had dreamed of coming to the United States. When he landed, “This was the best moment of my life. “My whole life changed”,

white50, a native of Southern California 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 was jailed on a number of charges, including allegations of espionage, which he says are false, as well as a charge of insulting Iran’s supreme leader.

He will suffer for what he said torture And Sexual Exploitationan ordeal which he recorded in a handwritten diary he kept secret behind bars, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison What the US government has said is unjust detention.

VatankhahNow 24, he said he has been in and out of jail since he was a teenager. Involvement in leftist causes and vocal criticism of the Iranian government, including 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.

Vatankhah, 24, said he has been in and out of prison since his teens for his involvement in leftist issues and criticism of the Iranian government. (AP Photo/Jay C. Hong)

Although Vatankhah was later released, he was arrested again, and This time he was lodged in the same cell as White in Mashhad jail in Iran.

Throughout our friendship, Vatankhah helped White cope with his imprisonment and better understand the justice system, acting as an interpreter to help you communicate with guards and prisoners. In early 2020, when Vatankhah was on parole, he also became an important conduit for White to the outside world.

Using contact information provided to him by White, Vatankhah contacted jonathan franksA US-based consultant to the families of American hostages and detainees who was working on White’s case and who later helped lead the humanitarian parole process for Watankhah. He also spoke to White’s mother And smuggled his letters.

The detailed information about White, his condition and his health — in prison he suffered from cancer and COVID-19 — came at a critical time, providing a kind of Proof of life at a time of rising tensions between the United States and Iran Iranian general killed due to US drone attack Qasim SulemaniWho led the Quds Force, the expeditionary force of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.

When the two men connected behind bars over their shared interest in politics and human rights, they developed a bond that proved vital to both of them. (AP Photo/Jay C. Hong)

White was freed in a prisoner exchange in June 2020., in exchange for an American-Iranian doctor imprisoned in the United States for violating US sanctions laws. Vatankhah, released the same year, moved to Turkiye.

White argued in his March application on Vatankhah’s behalf that his friend meets the criteria for humanitarian parole. Because, despite moving to Turkey, he continued to suffer persecution for his political views. Vatankhah wrote in his petition that the situation in Turkey is unsafe for him. He said Turkish police had searched his home and he was at risk of deportation to Iran.

paris etemadi scottA California lawyer who has worked with White and Vatankhah and filed humanitarian parole requests on the Iranian’s behalf said Vatankhah helped an American – a veteran, no less – The validity and urgency of their request increased Because this increased the possibility that Vatankhah might suffer imminent damage.

While many applicants lack meaningful supporting documentation, “Mahdi had an incredible amount of evidence to prove that he had, in fact, been repeatedly imprisoned,” he said.

White argued in his March application on Vatankhah’s behalf that his friend meets the criteria for humanitarian parole (AP Photo/Jay C. Hong)

A State Department spokesperson said in a statement that the Department’s Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Matters Worked hard to secure White’s release in 2020and after learning of Vatankhah’s case, “worked closely with a number of partners across the United States government,” including White House National Security Council And this Department of Homeland SecurityTo ensure their arrival in the United States.

Vatankhah now lives in San Diego, where White is originally supposed to live. Vatankhah said his humanitarian parole is valid for one year, but he has already requested asylumWhich will allow him to stay in America. She has obtained a work permit and has found employment as a caregiver.

They also have the freedom to share their political opinions freely without fear of reprisal.

“I like to express my views here where I can. “I can continue to use my freedom to speak out against the Iranian regime.”

(With information from AP)

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