Michael White He had just arrived at a gloomy Iranian prison when a curious fellow prisoner, an Iranian who spoke English, approached him in the courtyard to strike up a conversation.
The American didn’t reveal much at first, but it was the beginning of a unlikely friendship between Whitea Navy veteran imprisoned for espionage accusations that he said were unfounded, and Mahdi Vatankhaha young Iranian political activist whose stances on social issues had drawn the ire of his government.
When the two men were connected behind bars for their common interest in politics and the human rightsthey developed a bond that was vital for both of them.
Vatankhahwhile he was detained and after his release, helped White by providing his mother with crucial information and firsthand about his son’s situation in prison and transmitting to him the letters that White had written while he was locked up. Once free, White did not forget. This year got Vatankhah admitted to the United Stateswhich allowed the two to meet last spring at a Los Angeles airport, something neither of them could have imagined when they met in prison years ago.
“He risked his life to get information from me when I was in prison in Iran. He really, really did it,” White said in an interview with Vatankhah. “I told him I would do everything in my power to get him here because he felt, first of all, that it would be for the safety of his own life. And I also felt like I could be a great contributing member of society here.”
This year, White obtained permission for Vatankhah to live temporarily in the United States under a government program known as humanitarian parolewhich allows the entry of people for urgent humanitarian reasons or if there is a significant public benefit.
Vatankhah declared to AP who had dreamed of coming to the United States since he could remember. When she landed, “It was like the best moment of my life. “My whole life changed”.
White50, a native of Southern California 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 several charges, including espionage accusations that he calls false, as well as accusations of insulting Iran’s supreme leader.
He suffered what he says were torture and sexual abusean ordeal he documented in a handwritten diary he kept secret behind bars, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison in what the US government has said was an unjust detention.
Vatankhahnow 24, said he had been in and out of prison since he was a teenager because of his participation in left-wing causes and vocal criticism of the Iranian government, including through protests, social media posts, and articles in university newspapers. He met White in 2018 after one of those arrests, when Vatankhah faced accusations of spreading propaganda against the government in Tehran.
Although Vatankhah was later released, he was arrested again, and this time he ended up in the same cell as White in Iran’s Mashhad prison.
Throughout their friendship, Vatankhah helped White cope with his incarceration and better understand the justice system, acting as an interpreter to help you communicate with guards and inmates. In early 2020, while Vatankhah was on parole, he also became a vital conduit for White to the outside world.
Using the contact information White had provided him, Vatankhah contacted Jonathan Franksa US-based adviser to families of American hostages and detainees who was working on White’s case and who later helped lead the humanitarian parole process for Vatankhah. He also spoke with White’s mother and smuggled his letters.
The detailed information about White, his condition and his health – in prison he suffered from cancer and COVID-19 – came at a crucial time, providing a kind of proof of life at a time of rising tensions between the United States and Iran due to a US drone strike that killed the Iranian general Qassem Soleimaniwho led the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard’s expeditionary Quds Force.
White was freed in a prisoner swap in June 2020., exchanged for an American-Iranian doctor imprisoned in the United States for violating US sanctions laws. Vatankhah, released the same year, headed to Türkiye.
White argued in his March application on Vatankhah’s behalf that his friend met the criteria for humanitarian parole. because, despite having moved to Turkey, he continued to suffer harassment for his political opinions. Vatankhah wrote in his own petition that the situation was unsafe for him in Turkey. He noted that Turkish police had searched his home and that he remained at risk of deportation to Iran.
Paris Etemadi Scotta California lawyer who has worked with White and Vatankhah and filed the humanitarian parole request on the Iranian’s behalf, said Vatankhah’s help to an American – a veteran, no less – increased the legitimacy and urgency of his request because it added to the possibility that Vatankhah could suffer imminent harm.
While many applicants lack meaningful supporting documentation, “Mahdi had this incredible amount of evidence to prove that he was, in fact, imprisoned over and over again,” he said.
A State Department spokesperson 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 2020and after learning of Vatankhah’s case, “worked hand in hand with multiple partners in the United States government,” including the White House National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Securityto ensure their arrival in the United States.
Vatankhah now lives in San Diego, where White is originally from. Vatankhah said his humanitarian parole is valid for one year, but he has already requested asylumwhich would allow him to remain in the U.S. He has obtained a work permit and has found employment as a caregiver.
He also enjoys the freedom to freely share his political opinions without fear of retaliation.
“I like to express my ideas here where I can. “I can continue to use my freedom to speak out against the Iranian regime.”
(With information from AP)