A US Navy veteran got unexpected help while jailed in Iran. Once released, he repaid the favor

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A Navy veteran who was jailed in Iran for several years recently repaid the generosity of a fellow inmate who helped him behind bars.

FILE - U.S. Navy veteran Michael White stands for a portrait Jan. 13, 2021, in San Diego. White, who was jailed in Iran for several years, recently repaid the generosity of a fellow inmate who helped him behind bars. This year White sponsored an application for humanitarian parole for Mahdi Vatankhah, an Iranian he had met while the two were locked up. That allows Vatankhah to live at least temporarily in the United States.

Vatankhah, while in custody and after his release, helped White by providing White's mother with crucial, firsthand accounts about her son's status in prison and by passing along letters White had written while he was locked up. Once freed, White did not forget.

Vatankhah told AP he had dreamed about coming to the U.S. ever since he could remember. When he landed, “It was like the best moment of my life. My whole life changed.” Vatankhah, now 24, said he had been in and out of prison since he was a teenager because of his involvement in left-leaning causes and vocal criticism of the Iranian government, including through protests, social media posts and university newspaper pieces. He met White in 2018 after one such arrest when Vatankhah faced accusations of spreading propaganda against Tehran's government.

Using contact information White had given him, Vatankhah got in touch with Jonathan Franks, a consultant in the U.S. for families of American hostages and detainees who was working on White’s case and later helped spearhead the humanitarian parole process for Vatankhah. He also spoke with White's mother and smuggled out White's letters.

White argued in his March application on Vatankhah's behalf that his friend met the criteria for humanitarian parole because, despite having relocated to Turkey, he was continuing to face harassment on account of his political viewpoints. Vatankhah wrote in his own petition that the situation was unsafe for him in Turkey. He noted that Turkish police had raided his home and that he remained at risk of deportation to Iran.

 

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