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American released from Iranian prison on medical furlough amid coronavirus outbreak

Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran in fragile health, is now in the custody of the Swiss embassy but must remain in Iran.
Image: Secretary of State Pompeo speaks to the media in Washington
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks to the media at the State Department in Washington on March 5, 2020.Yuri Gripas / Reuters file

Iranian authorities on Thursday granted a medical furlough to an imprisoned American whose family warned he was at acute risk from the coronavirus, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

Michael White, 48, a U.S. Navy veteran who has been in prison since his 2018 arrest, is now in the custody of the Swiss embassy in Tehran but his release is conditioned on him staying in Iran, Pompeo said in a statement.

“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.

While in Swiss custody, White will undergo medical testing and evaluation, according to Pompeo. White was given furlough on “humanitarian grounds,” he said.

Michael White.Courtesy White Family

White was arrested more than 600 days ago after visiting a girlfriend in Iran whom he had met online. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison after getting convicted of insulting the country's top leader and displaying a private photo publicly. The second charge appears to have been leveled after White uploaded a picture of himself sitting with his supposed girlfriend, an Iranian national.

The decision to furlough White came as Iran grapples with one of the deadliest outbreaks of the coronavirus epidemic in the world.

Michael White’s family, which had earlier expressed frustrations with the Trump administration over his case, issued a statement welcoming his furlough and expressing gratitude to the U.S. envoy for hostage affairs and to the Swiss government.

“We are grateful that the Iranian government took this interim humanitarian step," the family’s spokesman, Jonathan Franks, said in a statement. "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."

Iran's U.N. mission in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Michael White’s mother, Joanne White, had told NBC News she was terrified her son could die in prison because of his compromised immune system and the onslaught of the coronavirus in Iran. Her son has multiple chronic conditions, including cancer and asthma, she said.

During his imprisonment, White’s chemotherapy port has not been properly flushed or cleaned, which could lead to a potentially lethal blood infection, according to his mother.

Iran was mindful that White’s health was deteriorating and likely wanted to avoid the risk of him dying in prison, which could have provoked sharp retaliation from the Trump administration, Western diplomats said.

The release also comes after an attack on Saturday allegedly by Iranian-backed militia in Iraq that wounded three U.S. troops. The United States has not retaliated for the attack so far and it was unclear if the Trump administration had postponed military action due to White’s furlough.

Iran’s decision to grant a medical furlough follows months of efforts to win the Navy veteran’s release, with Iran and the United States keeping open a diplomatic channel to discuss the fate of Americans imprisoned in Iran, NBC News previously reported. Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and his associates were also enlisted by White’s family to secure his release.

Even as the two countries came to the brink of war in December and early January, Washington and Tehran have traded messages through the Swiss government, which has handled U.S. interests in Tehran since the U.S. and Iran severed diplomatic relations 40 years ago.

“We thank the Government of Switzerland for its continued and constructive role as our protecting power in Iran,” Pompeo said in the statement on Thursday.

The Swiss ambassador to Iran, Markus Leitner, has made frequent trips to Washington in recent months to relay information on White’s status and messages from Tehran, according to a European diplomat and sources familiar with the matter.

Other Americans and foreigners in prison in Iran have appealed for release on humanitarian grounds, citing the coronavirus, which has been detected among prisoners in Evin prison in Tehran.

Iran has released tens of thousands of Iranian inmates in response to the pandemic. But Iran’s judiciary this week denied the furlough request of Siamak Namazi, an American whose lawyer has warned his client is at serious risk of contracting the disease.

His lawyer said Namazi has learned of two cases of coronavirus in Evin prison in recent weeks, affecting inmates not far from his cell.

Pompeo demanded Iran release other Americans held in Iran, including Namazi, his elderly father Baquer and Morad Tahbaz, an environmental activist. He also demanded the regime resolve the case of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, an American missing in Iran since 2007.

Also Thursday, Pompeo announced the release of a cancer-stricken American citizen who had been held in detention in Lebanon since September.

Amer Fakhoury, owner of Little Lebanon To Go restaurant in Dover, N.H. on July 5, 2016.John Huff / Foster's Daily Democrat via AP file

Amer Fakhoury, who was born in Lebanon but became a U.S. citizen last year, was detained on charges of working for an Israeli-backed militia some 20 years ago. He suffers from stage 4 lymphoma cancer.

Pompeo said Fakhoury "will be reunited with his family and receive urgent medical treatment."

"His return comes as a relief to those who have followed the case with grave concern," Pompeo added.