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Mother of American held in Iran fears her son is at risk of infection from coronavirus

U.S. Navy veteran Michael White had just finished cancer treatment when he was detained in July 2018 and has a compromised immune system, says his mother.

WASHINGTON — The mother of an American imprisoned in Iran said Wednesday she fears her son is at risk of contracting the coronavirus given the scale of the outbreak in the country and reports that the illness has spread to a major prison where he was held temporarily.

Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran, had just finished treatment for cancer when he was detained in Iran in July 2018, according to his mother, Joanne White.

"For months, Iranian authorities have refused to provide Michael, a cancer patient with a compromised immune system, with basic medical care and his health has rapidly declined," Joanne White said in a statement issued Wednesday.

Image: Michael White
Michael White.Courtesy of Joanne White

"I believe his life is imminently at risk and the situation is made even more urgent by the fact it's been a month since we last had verifiable proof Michael is alive," White said.

Michael White was recently transferred from a prison in Mashad to Evin prison in Tehran, she said, where he stayed 11 days until he was returned to Mashad. The lawyer for another American held in Iran, Siamak Namazi, said Monday the coronavirus was detected at Evin and one inmate who tested positive was removed.

Iranian authorities insist the virus has not been found in Evin prison. But on Tuesday, a judiciary spokesman said at a press conference that 54,000 prisoners have been temporarily released to prevent the spread of coronavirus in Iranian prisons.

"I am also concerned by credible reports of an outbreak at Evin prison because, at the end of January, Michael was suddenly transferred from Mashhad to Evin where he spent eleven days in a cramped intake cell before being returned to Mashhad without explanation," Joanne White said.

Given his fragile health, there was a serious danger that Michael White could die behind bars, she said.

"Time is running out for the Iranian regime to release Michael alive and avoid the consequences that would certainly follow should he die in their custody,' she said.

Joanne White, who said her son voted for President Donald Trump, demanded the White House take action to secure her son's release.

"It is also long past time for the administration my son so proudly voted for to DO SOMETHING to bring him home," she said in the statement.

A State Department spokesperson told NBC News that officials are "working with the Swiss on a daily basis to ensure the health, safety, and release of U.S. citizens currently imprisoned in Iran."

Iran has denied any mistreatment of foreign prisoners or that it withholds adequate medical care. Iran's U.N. mission was not immediately available for comment.

Iranian authorities have struggled to contain the spread of coronavirus. The illness has killed 92 people in Iran and there are 2,922 confirmed cases of the virus, according to the country's health ministry spokesman.