An American student who was conducting research for his dissertation in Tehran has been sentenced to 10 years in prison on spying charges, according to Iranian state media reports.
Xiyue Wang, a 37-year-old PhD student at Princeton University, was arrested ten months ago in Tehran, but news about his detention only became public on Sunday when the country's deputy judiciary chief announced the sentence on live television.
Iranian authorities have said Wang's sentence can be appealed.
A statement published by the university said Wang was arrested last summer while doing scholarly research on the administrative and cultural history of the late Qajar dynasty in connection with his dissertation. For his PhD, Wang was focusing on the study of regional governance practices across multiple countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — including Qajar Iran, Tsarist Russian Turkestan, and Afghanistan, the university said.
“We were very distressed by the charges brought against him in connection with his scholarly activities, and by his subsequent conviction and sentence," the statement said. "His family and the University are distressed at his continued imprisonment and are hopeful that he will be released after his case is heard by the appellate authorities in Tehran."
On Tuesday, Wang's wife urged Iranian authorities to release him, saying that he has been unjustly imprisoned for espionage.
"My husband, Xiyue Wang, is one of the kindest, most thoughtful, and most loving men I have ever known," she said in a statement distributed by Princeton. "He has been a devoted husband to me and a father to our four-year-old son."
She said that her husband was in Iran solely for the purpose of learning Farsi and doing research as a graduate student in history.
"We fervently hope that the Iranian authorities will release him soon so that he can return home to his young family," she added.
Iranian media reports have accused Wang of working as a spy for institutions in the US and UK. Mizan Online, the official news agency for the country's judiciary, said Wang was part of an institute that had "spider like" ties to US intelligence, and that his mission was to gather "highly confidential articles" for Harvard University, Princeton, the US State Department, and the British Institute of Persian Studies.
"Before he was arrested, he was able to digitally archive 4500 pages of the country’s documents, while authorities had him under surveillance," Mizan Online wrote.
But Wang's professor, who advised him on his dissertation, said that everything he did in Iran during his research was normal.
"The documents Wang read and collected during his time in Tehran are 100 or more years old," said Stephen Kotkin, a professor of history and international relations at Princeton, in a statement. "It is of course common for researchers traveling to multiple sites of field work to photocopy or scan documents they do not have time to go through fully while in country, in order to move on to their next place of research."
Kotkin told BuzzFeed News that Wang had been scheduled to spend a few months in Iran, and was supposed to travel to Russia for further research after a brief return to Princeton.
"Not himself a Muslim, he has developed a deep interest in and affection for predominantly Muslim communities," Kotkin continued in his statement. "He has spoken to me often of his delight at the depth and refinement of Iranian civilization."
Wang spoke multiple languages, including Persian, Turkic, Russian, and Pashto, according to Kotkin.
A former colleague who studied with Wang at Princeton described him as a "very kind, open-minded, and hardworking" person.
"He liked talking a lot and often spoke about his family and their time in China before moving to the United States," Anna Lind-Guzik, who took classes in Eurasian history with Wang two years ago, told BuzzFeed News.
Wang is a US citizen, but he was born in China. On Monday, China's ministry of foreign affairs denied media reports that said Wang had dual Chinese and American citizenship.
"As he has American citizenship, I can tell you that he is definitely not a Chinese national," Lu Kang, spokesperson for the ministry said.
When asked about Iran's decision to sentence a US national, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said, "He is someone that we're keeping an eye on."
The State Department on Tuesday told BuzzFeed News that it is “aware of reports regarding Xiyue Wang, a US citizen detained in Iran. For privacy reasons, we are not going to detail efforts in specific consular cases."
John Hudson contributed reporting from Washington.