US citizens freed in Iran, Lebanon as coronavirus fuels fears

Shaun TANDON
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Lebanese President Michel Aoun (right) and Prime Minister Hassan Diab wear protective masks during a cabinet meeting at the Baabda presidential palace

Lebanese President Michel Aoun (right) and Prime Minister Hassan Diab wear protective masks during a cabinet meeting at the Baabda presidential palace (AFP Photo/STRINGER)

Washington (AFP) - The United States on Thursday hailed the release of its citizens in Iran and Lebanon as the coronavirus pandemic heightened global fears for prisoners' health.

The United States also pressed Venezuela to free dual nationals detained from oil company Citgo and President Donald Trump held out hope for Austin Tice, a journalist missing in war-ravaged Syria since 2012.

In two very different cases, Iran transferred a US veteran who had apparently gone to the rival nation to see a woman he met online, while Lebanon handed over a naturalized American accused of abusing prisoners as part of a pro-Israel militia.

US Navy veteran Michael White was given in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad to a team from Switzerland, which represents US interests in the absence of diplomatic relations, and flown to the capital Tehran, the State Department said.

"The United States will continue to work for Michael's full release as well as the release of all wrongfully detained Americans in Iran," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

White was detained in July 2018 and later sentenced to at least 10 years in prison on charges that he insulted Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and posted anti-regime remarks on social media under a pseudonym.

Mark Zaid, a lawyer for White, said that he was granted furlough due to pre-existing conditions and voiced hope White would be allowed to leave Iran.

White's family has said that he suffered from cancer and that Iranian doctors removed a melanoma from his back.

- Virus creates 'urgency' -

Iran is one of the countries worst hit by the COVID-19 coronavirus, with a death toll of nearly 1,300, and has ordered the temporary release of some 70,000 prisoners.

"We recognize the urgency of the situation," said Brian Hook, the US pointman on Iran, who spoke to White by telephone and found him to be in "good spirits."

"The fact that the regime has released so many people from jail is an admission by the regime of their concern," Hook told reporters.

Iran this week also freed for two weeks Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national who worked for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the media organization's philanthropic arm.

Iran, which does not recognize dual nationality, is still holding US citizens Siamak Namazi, who was convicted of charges that include espionage and collaboration with the US government, his father Baquer and environmental expert Morad Tahbaz.

Iran in December freed Xiyue Wang, a US academic, in an exchange for scientist Massoud Soleimani and said it was open to further swaps.

- Lebanon cooperates over militia veteran -

David Schenker, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, said that coronavirus concerns also hastened efforts to free Amer al-Fakhoury from Lebanon.

The former member of the pro-Israel South Lebanon Army "was compromised and at risk" as he had lymphoma, Schenker said.

Trump said that Lebanon cooperated in the release of Fakhoury, who was detained on his return to the country in September.

"We've been working very hard to get him freed. He's finally able to have his entire family at his side," Trump told reporters.

Witnesses accuse Fakhoury of ordering or personally taking part in beatings of thousands of inmates as a warden of Khiyam prison, set up by the mostly Christian militia after Israel invaded southern Lebanon to create a buffer zone.

Schenker disputed accounts of Fakhoury's involvement, saying his name did not come up in previous prosecutions of militia members and charging that some in Lebanon wanted to use the US citizen's detention as a bargaining chip.

A Lebanese judiciary official said Fakhoury had been released on Monday after a military court ruled there was a statute of limitations for his alleged crimes.

A security source later told AFP that Fakhoury left the country in a helicopter from the US embassy. The embassy did not comment on the report.

Trump separately voiced hope for the release of Tice, a freelance photojournalist covering Syria's brutal civil war who disappeared after being detained at a checkpoint near Damascus on August 14, 2012.

"If he's alive, we would like to get him back," Trump told reporters.

"We're working very hard with Syria to get him out," he said. "We hope the Syrian government will do that.

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