American held by Iran hospitalized with coronavirus symptoms amid worsening outbreak

(NEW YORK) — An American detained by Iran for over 600 days on spurious charges has been hospitalized with symptoms consistent with the novel coronavirus, according to his family’s spokesperson.

Michael White, 48, has not yet been confirmed to have the virus, known as COVID-19, but there are deep concerns about his safety as Iran struggles to contain its outbreak, with over 29,000 Iranians infected and over 2,200 killed.

His family has spent weeks expressing concern about his health, saying his immune system is compromised by cancer and urging Iranian authorities to return him to the U.S. One week ago, he was granted a medical furlough and released to the custody of the Swiss government, which has looked after U.S. interests and citizens in Iran since the U.S. embassy was shuttered in 1979.

“His situation is urgent,” family spokesperson Jonathan Franks said in a statement Wednesday night. “It is in everyone’s interest during this health crisis to facilitate Michael’s immediate medical evacuation.”

Former New Mexico governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, often a mediator with rogue regimes that have detained Americans, has made a formal request to senior Iranian authorities for White’s immediate return to the U.S., Franks added.

As a condition of White’s medical furlough, he is not allowed to leave the country, but his family is concerned that the Iranian health care system, already weak and even further strained by the virus, is dangerously insufficient.

White has been experiencing fever, fatigue, cough, and shortness of breath and was hospitalized Wednesday in a crowded ward specifically for COVID-19 patients, according to Franks.

“The United States will continue to work for Michael’s full release as well as the release of all wrongfully detained Americans in Iran,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement last week after White was granted medical furlough.

There are at least three other Americans also being held by the Iranian government. The family of former FBI agent Bob Levinson announced Wednesday that U.S. officials believe Levinson, the longest-held American hostage who has been missing inside Iran since March 2007, died at some point in Iranian custody, but before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Iran has been overwhelmed by its coronavirus outbreak, which has mushroomed through its prison system as well. Iranian authorities have released more than 85,000 prisoners on temporary leave to stem that spread, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei saying last week the state will pardon 10,000 more.

But none of the Americans detained have been on that list. Instead, even with two inmates confirmed to have COVID-19 down the hallway, Siamak Namazi’s request for temporary release was denied last Tuesday, according to his lawyer Jared Genser.

“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 at the time.

Siamak and Babak’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.

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