NATIONAL NEWS

A US Navy veteran got unexpected help while jailed in Iran. Once released, he repaid the favor

Sep 10, 2023, 4:54 AM | Updated: 6:30 am

FILE - U.S. Navy veteran Michael White stands for a portrait Jan. 13, 2021, in San Diego. White, wh...

FILE - U.S. Navy veteran Michael White stands for a portrait Jan. 13, 2021, in San Diego. White, who was jailed in Iran for several years, recently repaid the generosity of a fellow inmate who helped him behind bars. This year White sponsored an application for humanitarian parole for Mahdi Vatankhah, an Iranian he had met while the two were locked up. That allows Vatankhah to live at least temporarily in the United States. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Michael White had only recently arrived in a grim Iranian jail when a curious fellow prisoner, an English-speaking Iranian, approached him in the courtyard for a conversation.

The American did not reveal much at first, but it was the beginning of an unlikely friendship between White, a Navy veteran imprisoned on spying charges he says were unfounded, and Mahdi Vatankhah, a young Iranian political activist whose positions on social issues had drawn his government’s ire.

As the men connected behind bars over a shared interest in politics and human rights, they developed a bond that proved vital for both.

Vatankhah, while in custody and after his release, helped White by providing White’s mother with crucial, firsthand accounts about her son’s status in prison and by passing along letters White had written while he was locked up. Once freed, White did not forget. He pushed successfully this year for Vatankhah’s admission to the United States, allowing the men to be reunited last spring inside a Los Angeles airport, something neither could have envisioned when they first met in prison years earlier.

“He risked his life to get the information out for me when I was in the prison in Iran. He really, really did,” White said in an interview alongside Vatankhah. “I told him I would do everything I could in my power to get him here because I felt, one, that would be for his safety in his own life. And I also felt he could get a great contributing member of society here.”

This year, White received permission for Vatankhah to live temporarily in the U.S. under a government program known as humanitarian parole, which allows people in for urgent humanitarian reasons or if there is a significant public benefit.

Vatankhah told AP he had dreamed about coming to the U.S. ever since he could remember. When he landed, “It was like the best moment of my life. My whole life changed.”

White, 50, a Southern California native who spent 13 years in the Navy, was arrested in Iran in 2018 after traveling to the country to pursue a romantic relationship with a woman he met online. He was jailed on various charges, including espionage accusations that he calls bogus, as well as allegations of insulting Iran’s supreme leader.

He endured what he says was torture and sexual abuse, an ordeal he documented in a handwritten diary that he secretly maintained behind bars, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison in what the U.S. government has said was a wrongful detention.

Vatankhah, now 24, said he had been in and out of prison since he was a teenager because of his involvement in left-leaning causes and vocal criticism of the Iranian government, including through protests, social media posts and university newspaper pieces. He met White in 2018 after one such arrest when Vatankhah faced accusations of spreading propaganda against Tehran’s government.

Though Vatankhah was later released, he was arrested again, this time winding up in the same cell as White in Iran’s Mashhad prison.

During the course of their friendship, Vatankhah helped White navigate his imprisonment and better understand the judicial system, functioning as an interpreter to help him communicate with guards and inmates. In early 2020, while Vatankhah was out on furlough, he also became a vital conduit to the outside world for White.

Using contact information White had given him, Vatankhah got in touch with Jonathan Franks, a consultant in the U.S. for families of American hostages and detainees who was working on White’s case and later helped spearhead the humanitarian parole process for Vatankhah. He also spoke with White’s mother and smuggled out White’s letters.

The detailed information about White, his status and his health — he suffered from cancer and COVID-19 in prison — came at a crucial time, providing a proof-of-life of sorts at a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran due to a U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who led the expeditionary Quds Force of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.

White was released in a June 2020 prisoner swap, exchanged for an American-Iranian physician imprisoned in the U.S. for violating American sanctions laws. Vatankhah, released the same year, made his way to Turkey.

White argued in his March application on Vatankhah’s behalf that his friend met the criteria for humanitarian parole because, despite having relocated to Turkey, he was continuing to face harassment on account of his political viewpoints. Vatankhah wrote in his own petition that the situation was unsafe for him in Turkey. He noted that Turkish police had raided his home and that he remained at risk of deportation to Iran.

Paris Etemadi Scott, a California lawyer who has worked with White and Vatankhah and filed the humanitarian parole application on the Iranian’s behalf, said Vatankhah’s assistance to an American — a veteran, no less — enhanced the legitimacy and urgency of his petition because it added to the potential that Vatankhah could face imminent harm.

While many applicants do not have significant supporting documentation, “Mahdi had this amazing amount of evidence to show that he was in fact incarcerated over and over again,” she said.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it does not discuss individual humanitarian parole cases. A State Department spokesman said in a statement that the office of the department’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs had worked hard to secure White’s release in 2020, and after learning of Vatankhah’s case, “worked hand-in-hand with multiple partners in the U.S. government” to secure the parole.

Vatankhah is now living in San Diego, where White is from. Vatankhah said his humanitarian parole is good for one year, but he already has applied for asylum, which would allow him to remain in the U.S. He’s obtained a work permit and has found work as a caregiver.

He’s also enjoying freedom to share his political views freely without fear of retribution.

“I like to express my ideas here where I can. I can continue to use my freedom to talk against the Iranian regime,:”

_____

Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP

National News

Associated Press

Millions in US prepare for more sweltering heat. Floodwaters inundate parts of Midwest

Millions of Americans prepared to sweat through yet another scorching day, with the potential for rolling storms later Sunday to bring relief from the sweltering heat for at least some. Floodwaters inundated parts of the Midwest, including a town in Iowa evacuated after being submerged up to the rooftops. Across the country in California, daily […]

19 minutes ago

Associated Press

Ten people are injured in a shooting in Columbus, Ohio. Police are searching for a suspect

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Police in Ohio say 10 people were injured, including one seriously, in a shooting in Columbus. The shooting occurred early Sunday in the Short North Arts District, local media said, quoting law enforcement. The Columbus Police Department said all the injured were males, eight adults and two youths who ranged in […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

Philadelphia police officer shot by fleeing suspect is in critical condition

A Philadelphia police officer was shot in the neck and was in critical condition Saturday night, officials said. The 31-year-old officer was in critical condition and undergoing surgery at Temple University Hospital, Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel said during a news conference outside the hospital. The officer, a veteran of more than six years on the […]

12 hours ago

Associated Press

A fourth victim has died a day after a shooting at an Arkansas grocery store, police say

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Police say a fourth victim has died a day after a shooting at an Arkansas grocery store. The person died Saturday evening, Arkansas state police said in a statement. A total of 14 people were wounded in Friday’s shooting, according to police: “11 civilians, two law enforcement officers and the […]

13 hours ago

Associated Press

2 people were taken to a hospital after lightning struck a tree near a PGA Tour event in Connecticut

CROMWELL, Conn. (AP) — Two people were taken to the hospital Saturday after lightning struck a tree near a home along a golf course that is hosting the PGA Tour’s Travelers Championship. The home is just north of the fifth green at TPC River Highlands, which is hosting the tournament one week after the U.S. […]

15 hours ago

Associated Press

FBI offers reward for information about deadly southern New Mexico wildfires

RUIDOSO, N.M. (AP) — Federal authorities offered a reward for information about those responsible for igniting a pair of New Mexico wildfires that killed two people and destroyed hundreds of homes in the past week. The FBI on Saturday offered up to $10,000 for information in connection with the South Fork Fire and Salt Fire […]

20 hours ago

A US Navy veteran got unexpected help while jailed in Iran. Once released, he repaid the favor