American furloughed from Iranian prison as coronavirus raises concerns for those detained abroad

(NEW YORK) – Iran has granted medical furlough to a former U.S. Navy veteran who had been detained for over 600 days on trumped up charges, according to his family and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The family of Michael White had been expressing increased concern about his health, saying his immune system is compromised by cancer — putting him at higher risk amid the novel coronavirus outbreak that has ripped through Iran, including its prison system.

More than 1,200 people have been killed by the virus in Iran, with at least 18,000 confirmed cases. Iranian authorities have released more than 85,000 prisoners on temporary leave, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei saying Thursday the state will pardon 10,000 more.

With White’s temporary release, at least three other Americans remain imprisoned by the Iranian government. One of the prisoners was just denied medical furlough on Tuesday, while a fifth — former FBI agent Bob Levinson — remains missing inside the country.

The U.S. has urged Iran, as well as President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Venezuela, to release Americans detained as a humanitarian gesture, given the deadly outbreak.

“The United States will continue to work for Michael’s full release as well as the release of all wrongfully detained Americans in Iran,” Pompeo said in a statement Thursday.

White has had a fever and a cough, according to his family, and he is now in the care of the Swiss embassy, which has looked after U.S. interests and citizens in Iran since the U.S. embassy in Tehran was shuttered in 1979.

He will undergo medical evaluation and treatment in Swiss care, according to his family and Pompeo. But as a condition of his parole, he will not be permitted to leave the country — likely to return to Iranian custody instead.

“We are grateful that the Iranian Government took this interim humanitarian step,” family spokesperson Jonathan Franks said, on behalf of White’s mother Joanne White. “We continue to urge them to release Michael unconditionally so that he can return to the United States to receive the advanced medical care he needs.”

White’s release comes just days after businessman Siamak Namazi was denied furlough. Namazi has been detained since October 2015 on charges that he and the U.S. have dismissed as spurious. Two prisoners in his ward have now tested positive for COVID-19, both just down the hallway, according to lawyer Jared Genser.

The judiciary refused his request for temporary release.

“It is outrageous that even now, under such dangerous conditions, Iran refuses to show the basic humanity and decency it has so vociferously demanded from others and instead continues to inflict senseless suffering upon my family,” Babak Namazi, his brother, said in a statement Tuesday.

Siamak and Babk’s father Baquer, 83, also a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen, is also imprisoned. A former official of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Iranian provincial governor, Baquer was detained in February 2016 after he traveled to Tehran to advocate for his son’s release.

While in custody, he’s had emergency surgery because of a severe heart condition, with his family concerned about his deteriorating health in poor prison conditions.

The United Nations special envoy for human rights in Iran — Javaid Rehman — said last week that foreign citizens detained by Iran were “at real risk,” urging the government to release them immediately.

In addition to Tehran, Pompeo called on Venezuela Thursday to release five U.S. citizens and one lawful permanent resident who worked as executives for Citgo, the oil giant, and have been imprisoned in a notorious prison in the capital Caracas since November 2017.

All six — known as the Citgo 6 — have “weakened immune systems due to cumulative health problems and face a grave health risk if they become infected,” Pompeo said in another statement.

Maduro’s government, riddled by corruption and mismanagement, already faces vast health care shortages and is seen as incapable of managing an outbreak after cases have started to emerge in the South American country.

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