US citizen held for 3 years in Iran tells of ‘psychological torture’: I was a ‘pawn’

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Xiyue Wang, a US citizen who had been held in Iran for three years on spying charges, told Al Arabiya in an exclusive interview, Iranian interrogators told him they wanted to use him as a “pawn” and described the “psychological torture” he endured.

“I was thrown into solitary confinement in a very tight cell for 28 days. I was questioned every day for hours. I experienced a lot of psychological torture,” Wang said.

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Human rights organizations have long accused the Iranian regime of arbitrary arrests, forced confessions and inhumane prison conditions.

“There were etches on the wall of the cell, one of them was written in English saying: 364 days of imprisonment. That’s when I broke collapsed immediately,” Wang said.

Wang, a Princeton University graduate student, was convicted on espionage charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2017. His family and the university have always said he was in Iran for research into a history degree and denied spying.

This 2009 handout photo released by a friend of Xiyue Wang shows Xiyue Wang at his apartment in Hong Kong, (AP)
This 2009 handout photo released by a friend of Xiyue Wang shows Xiyue Wang at his apartment in Hong Kong, (AP)

“In 2016, I was studying the Persian language in Tehran and researching Iranian archival materials. A few hours before my return to the US, members of the… intelligence called me, claiming to be the police. They asked me to bring my electronics and answer some questions,” Wang said.

“In the beginning, there were no charges and it seemed like routine questioning by authorities.”

International diplomats, lawyers and relatives of detainees say Iran has a history of arresting Westerners, especially dual nationals, mostly on spying charges.

“The interrogator told me that he wanted to use me as a pawn to finalize a deal with the US for the return of Iranian prisoners [held in the United States] and to retrieve frozen funds in Washington,” Wang said.

“You have to confess to being a spy or you’ll go back to solitary confinement until you do. If you don’t, you will not see your wife and son ever again,” he added.


Iran released Wang in 2019 during a rare prisoner swap between Tehran and Washington at a time of heightened tensions under the administration of former US President Donald Trump.

Switzerland facilitated the swap. The country represents US diplomatic interests in Iran, since Washington and Tehran cut diplomatic ties shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

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