2 Americans imprisoned in Iran, Lebanon released

WASHINGTON (AP) — An American jailed for months in Lebanon was released from custody Thursday, while a Navy veteran was granted medical furlough from an Iran prison as the country struggles to curb the spread of coronavirus, U.S. officials said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Michael White, imprisoned more than a year ago for insulting Iran’s supreme leader, was released to the Swiss Embassy as part of a furlough that will require him to remain in Iran. The U.S. will work for his full release, Pompeo said.

The other American was Amer Fakhoury, a New Hampshire restaurant owner who had faced decades-old murder and torture charges in Lebanon that he denies. He was ordered released by a judge because more than 10 years had passed since the crimes he was accused of committing.

The Trump administration trumpeted the twin releases, though done in different countries and for different reasons, as part of its efforts to secure the release of Americans held hostage or imprisoned abroad. Officials including President Donald Trump used the occasion to name additional Americans they want released, including journalist Austin Tice, who went missing in Syria in 2012.

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“I want to let everyone know that recovering Americans held captive and imprisoned abroad continues to be a top priority for my administration,” Trump said at a news conference.

White’s release, though temporary for the moment, came as Iran has furloughed tens of thousands of prisoners while struggling with a coronavirus that Iranian officials fear could kill millions.

White, of Imperial Beach, California, was detained in Iran while visiting a girlfriend there in July 2018. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for insulting Iran’s supreme leader and posting private information; the State Department said he was serving a 13-year sentence. His mother had called for White’s immediate release in an interview with The Associated Press this month, saying she was concerned about the well-being of her son and that he had been battling cancer.

“He is in very good spirits, but has some pretty sustained health conditions that are going to require some attention,” Brian Hook, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, said on a conference call. Hook said White would be evaluated by doctors.

Fakhoury was on his way back to the U.S. after a judge in Lebanon ordered him released. Fakhoury had been accused of torturing prisoners at a jail run by an Israeli-backed militia two-decades ago. He had been imprisoned since September after returning to Lebanon to visit family.

His case had put a significant strain on already troubled ties between the U.S. and Lebanon. Lawmakers in Washington had threatened to withhold critical aid to the country and impose sanctions on the Lebanese military, which is seen by the Trump administration as a bulwark against the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement.

“Anytime a U.S citizen is wrongfully detained by a foreign government, we must use every tool at our disposal to free them,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H, who had worked for his release. “I’m very glad that Amer is finally coming home and will be reunited with his family. No family should have to go through what the Fakhoury family has gone through.”

His oldest daughter, Guila Fakhoury, told the AP by phone, “We are so happy. It’s a dream.”

Fakhoury was diagnosed with Stage 4 lymphoma and had been hospitalized in Lebanon. Trump said Fakhoury “will now be able to receive the much needed care and treatment in the United States.”

“We’ve been working very hard to get him freed, and he’s finally able to have his entire family at his side,” Trump said.

Fakhoury was ordered to be released Monday because more than 10 years had passed since he allegedly tortured prisoners at a jail run by the South Lebanon Army militia. But he was not immediately allowed to leave the country after a Lebanese military judge on Tuesday appealed the decision, asking a military tribunal to strike down the decision to free Fakhoury.

The parliamentary bloc of Hezbollah criticized the military tribunal for what it called “succumbing” to U.S. demands to release Fakhoury, describing him as “an agent who betrayed his country.” Hezbollah lawmakers called on concerned authorities to hold the tribunal accountable.

Hours before Shaheen announced Fakhoury’s release, a U.S. Marine Osprey was seen taking off from the U.S. Embassy compound northeast of Beirut. He was being returned to the U.S. in a State Department medical plane, said Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker.

Separately, hours after the release, the U.S. embassy announced that all of its non-essential personnel had been ordered to leave Lebanon. An official in Washington said the decision to move to ordered departure was not connected to the release and was instead made due to the spread of the coronavirus and the uncertainty of transportation. The embassy will be operating with only emergency consular services available for American citizens for the foreseeable future.

Fakhoury is a former SLA member who became a U.S. citizen last year. His case has been closely followed in New Hampshire, where Shaheen and other officials have called for imposing sanctions on Lebanon to pressure Beirut to release him.

Fakhoury was jailed last year after returning to Lebanon on vacation to visit family. Lebanon’s intelligence service said he confessed during questioning to being a warden at Khiam Prison, which was run by the SLA during Israel’s 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon.

Human rights groups have described the prison as a center for torture.

Fakhoury’s family and lawyer, however, said he had no direct contact with inmates and was never involved in any interrogation or torture.

Fakhoury’s family said in a statement said they have been through a nightmare “that we would never wish on anyone.” They thanked Trump and members of his administration and said Fakhoury “considers Shaheen his hero.”

Lebanon and Israel have been officially at war since Israel’s creation in 1948. Lebanon bans its citizens from traveling to Israel or having contact with Israelis.

Fakhoury’s lawyer and family say he fled Lebanon in 2001 through Israel and eventually to the United States because of death threats he and many other SLA members received after Israel ended its occupation of Lebanon in 2000.

Fakhoury was formally charged in February by a military judge with the murder and torture of inmates at Khiam Prison.

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McCormack reported from Concord, New Hampshire. Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani in Washington and Bassem Mroue and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

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