Colleagues vouch for US student imprisoned in Iran as scholar, not spy

Colleagues vouch for US student imprisoned in Iran as scholar, not spy
Wang in a family photo. Source: Reuters/Princeton University/

By the time Princeton University graduate student Xiyue Wang arrived in Iran to conduct research for his doctorate in history, he had already spent years living and working in politically turbulent countries.

The Chinese-born United States citizen previously worked as a Pashto translator for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan and spent time in Uzbekistan while a student at Harvard University.

Wang, 37, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on spying charges after his arrest last summer, an Iranian official said on Sunday. He is the latest American citizen to face jail in Iran for what the US State Department has denounced as fabricated charges.

His sentencing shocked his colleagues at Princeton, who described him in interviews as a quiet but collegial scholar whose intellectual curiosity stood out even at the elite school in New Jersey.

Wang is married and has a four-year-old son. In addition to Pashto, English and his native Mandarin, Wang is also proficient in Russian and Turkish and was learning Persian in Iran.

His wife, Hua Qu, said in a statement on Tuesday her husband “has been unjustly imprisoned for espionage I know he did not and never would commit.”

She said:

“We fervently hope the Iranian authorities will release him soon so that he can return home to his young family.”

University president Chris Eisgruber said in a letter to the school on Monday Princeton had kept his arrest confidential on the recommendation of advisers inside and outside of government.

Wang, a history student at Princeton since 2013, was conducting field work for his dissertation, which is focused on how Muslim regions are governed.

Iran accused him of scanning 4,500 pages of digital documents. His academic adviser, Professor Stephen Kotkin and fellow graduate students said in interviews scanning historical documents – the ones Wang was studying were a century old, Kotkin said – for later review is a common practice for researchers.

Kotkin said Wang was pursuing a “very ambitious” dissertation plan that included on-site research in Iran, Russia and potentially, Afghanistan.

Wang had earned a master’s degree at Harvard University before going to Princeton. Source: Shutterstock

“He’s one of these kids who live for research and ideas,” Kotkin said.

Several history graduate students described Wang as a respected scholar but declined to go into detail, citing the sensitivity of the case. The history department’s chairman, Keith Wailoo, emailed students on Monday asking them to refer news media inquiries to the school’s communications office.

One student and friend of Wang’s, who requested anonymity after Wailoo’s email, said Wang was “very driven” to succeed, working hard to learn Persian to read source material in its original form.

An official at Iran’s interests section in Washington, the country’s de facto diplomatic outpost in the US capital, declined to comment in detail on Wang’s case, referring questions to Iran’s United Nations mission, which did not respond to a request for comment.

After high school in Beijing, Wang studied in China and India before moving to the US, according to a lecture he gave years ago.

He graduated from the University of Washington in 2006 and earned a master’s degree at Harvard University, where he travelled to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for research.

In 2008-09, Wang worked at a law firm in Hong Kong through Princeton in Asia, a programme that arranges fellowships in Asia for US residents.

“For better or worse, he still can’t tell you what exactly he has been studying in the many years that have passed,” a biographical note on Princeton in Asia’s website said. “What he does know is that his dream is to walk the ancient Silk Road from Xi’an to Rome one day.”

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