Wife of US academic held by Iran begs Trump for help

Beijing (AFP) –


The Chinese wife of a US academic serving a 10-year term in Iran on espionage charges pleaded for help from the White House Friday after Tehran issued fresh accusations against her husband.

Hua Qu said for the last year and a half she has only been able to speak with her husband Xiyue Wang for a few minutes a week as he languishes in an Iranian prison.

The couple has a four-year-old son and lives in New Jersey, where Wang is a doctoral candidate in history at Princeton University.

"My young family should not be the bearer of the burden of ties between the US and Iran. If President (Donald) Trump and the White House don't rescue him, there is nobody who can," Qu told AFP.

"We cannot wait forever."

Wang, a Chinese-born US citizen, was conducting archival research on Iran's Qajar dynasty when he was imprisoned in August 2016.

In July, he was convicted for "collaborating with foreign governments" under the guise of research, according to the Mizan Online News Agency, which is close to Tehran's judiciary.

On Sunday, Iranian state TV accused Wang, 36, of attempting to remove some 4,500 documents from the country.

Princeton called the accusations "false and misleading", saying Wang had obtained all the official paperwork and approvals necessary for his research.

Qu said her husband has become "a political pawn, a bargaining chip" used by the Iranians as leverage against the US as Trump mulls scrapping the Iran nuclear deal, a 2015 accord that curbed Tehran's nuclear programme in exchange for a lifting of sanctions.

Qu, who is visiting her family in Beijing, said she had sought help from the Chinese government, but its multiple attempts to mediate were rebuffed.

"They got pushback that the Iranians wanted to deal only with the US government, for an exchange of prisoners," she said.

Earlier this month, Trump took credit for engineering the release of three UCLA basketball players held in China on suspicion of shoplifting, after raising the matter with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Qu said she wished he had also brought up Wang's case.

In July, Trump warned of "new and serious consequences" unless US nationals held in the Islamic republic were released, but critics say his hardline approach to Tehran has made things worse.

"People holding US passports are supposed to be protected. They should not become political capital."

The day Iranian authorities came for him, Wang called Qu from Tehran to tell her they were bringing him to the airport to take a flight home, she said.

Instead, they put him in solitary confinement for 18 days.

His conditions have since improved, but Wang can "hardly stand" due to pain, Qu said, after sitting cross-legged all day in his cell despite arthritis in both knees, as well as back pains, rashes, and diarrhoea.

"He doesn't have any treatment other than painkillers, which he takes for everything he's got," she said.

Their son has struggled to understand the situation, now that his father has been absent for almost half his life.

"He says to me, 'I love my daddy, but now I just have Legos'," Qu said.

Qu said she fell in love with Wang for his jokes and stories about places she had hardly even heard of.

On the phone recently, he comforted her with references to an ancient Sanskrit poem about an exiled spirit who convinces a passing cloud to take a message of longing to his wife, who awaits him on a distant Himalayan peak.

"He asks me to look at the clouds and think of him," she said.