By Hannah Somerville
June 11, 2020
Iranian officials have disclosed that Michael White, a US citizen who was released from an Iranian prison on June 4 in a historic exchange, was freed because he has HIV/AIDS.
On Thursday, June 4 it was announced that White had boarded a plane home after having been held in prison since July 2018.
In a press briefing on Tuesday, June 9, the Iranian judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaeili said that despite having taken place as part of a deal, White’s release was a humanitarian gesture in response to his ailing health.
Esmaeili also said White had been suffering from the effects of AIDS, which he had contracted prior to his arrest and incarceration. Iran’s “legal leniency,” he insisted, would be to White’s benefit in addition to being “in the general interests of the country”, and had come about with “the intervention of the secretariat of the Supreme National Security Council.”
It was the first time that officials, Iranian or American, have stated that White has AIDS. Previous reports had said he had been undergoing treatment for cancer before he was arrested.
The statement also came a day after Matteo Taerri, an Iranian-American and White’s counterpart in the prisoner exchange, was revealed to have returned to Iran.
Taerri, whose Iranian name is Majid Taheri, is a dual national who left Iran in the late 1980s before claiming asylum in Canada. He has worked as a cosmetic surgeon in Florida and Georgia for more than 20 years.
He was arrested in November 2018 on charges of violating US sanctions against Iran after he tried to export a microfilter used in medical research to the country. It was claimed that he was trying to transport the device to his nephew, a student working under a world-renowned Iranian stem cell researcher, to be used for cancer research. The researcher, Masoud Soleimani, and two other US citizens born in Iran were also the subjects of simultaneous indictments and all three have since been freed.
Taerri’s return to Iran comes despite the fact that he claimed in court submissions to have fled “persecution” in the country, and arrived as an asylum seeker. His decision to leave is understood to have been due to his family’s political connections outside of Iran.
Taerri’s lawyer, Steven P. Byrne, said Taerri is visiting the country for some “long-overdue” medical treatment and also to see his family, but fully intends to return to the US.
Byrne also told IranWire he was “very pleased” with the outcome: “It was a happy ending as far as my client was concerned. He was able to be released many years before he might otherwise have been.”
Bilateral talks about a possible US-Iran prisoner exchange, he said, had taken place over a period of months while Taerri was incarcerated, and subsequently released on bond on April 3.
Byrne said he had been greatly concerned about the state of his client’s health in prison. Earlier appeals for Taerri’s release had stressed his ailing physical health but had been overturned by US prosecutors on the grounds that he was a flight risk, which his lawyer described as “very disappointing.”
“The decision to release him on bond was done in part as a good faith effort on the part of the US: to show they were willing to work with the Iranian government,” Byrne said.
He added that he “could not say” whether there had been a political motive to Taerri’s arrest given that the first offense, the export of the microfilter, had taken place as far back as in 2016 without any reprisal at the time.
“It’s fairly common in federal investigations that a formal charge will not be brought until months or even years after the offense,” Byrne said. “Certainly I was concerned that the charges against Dr. Taerri had some political motivation. It’s discretionary on the part of law enforcement whether to bring a charge or not. But I was also aware that the facts supporting the charge existed.”
Taerri pled guilty to the unauthorized export attempt, and also to a separate unrelated charge of structuring more than $270,000 in bank deposits to avoid federal reporting requirements. Byrne said he was personally unsure why Taerri would have done this, but “a lot of people feel uncomfortable providing information in and of itself and want to exercise their right to privacy”.
It is thought that Taerri will try to continue practicing as a doctor in the US despite his new criminal record. Byrne said of his client: “He appeared to me a different person when he was ultimately released.”
On the day of White’s release both President Donald Trump and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted about the exchange, with Zarif saying he was “glad” they would both be returning to their families.
Trump confirmed he had spoken with White when he arrived in Zurich, Switzerland. In his first interview, given on the runway at Zurich Airport standing next to Brian Hook, the US State Department’s envoy on Iran, White said he was happy to be going home.
White’s mother, Joanne White, said in a statement announcing the release of her son: “683 days ago, my son Michael was taken hostage by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards in Iran; I have been living in a nightmare ever since.”
The release of White and Taerri followed that of Cyrus Asghari, an Iranian citizen and scientist who had been imprisoned in the United States for three years. Initially it was thought that Asghari had been released in exchange for White, a claim that was eventually rejected by US officials.