By Humeyra Pamuk
WASHINGTON, March 19 (Reuters) – Two American citizens who have been detained in Iran and Lebanon have been released from detention, the Trump administration said on Thursday, as Washington ramped up efforts to get them freed amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Michael White who has been detained in Iran since 2018, was freed on Thursday on medical furlough, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement, adding that the Navy veteran was currently in Swiss custody.
Lebanese-American Amer Fakhoury, who was detained in Lebanon in September, has been released and was on his way back to the United States, President Donald Trump told a news conference.
U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who represents Fakhoury’s home state of New Hampshire, told reporters he was due to arrive in the United States later on Thursday. Fakhoury has advanced cancer, she said.
Shaheen and Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas had introduced legislation threatening sanctions against Lebanese officials involved with his detention.
“I hope that his release and his return to the United states is a first step in repairing relations,” Shaheen said on a conference call with reporters.
White’s release was conditioned upon him staying in Iran, Pompeo said. “Michael … will undergo medical testing and evaluation,” he added.
U.S. officials said the outbreak of coronavirus, which has infected almost 228,000 people worldwide, made their release a high priority.
“(White) does have pre-existing medical conditions,” U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said on a conference call with reporters. “And so as soon as we saw corona working its way through Iran, putting prison populations at risk … we applied the same logic to the Americans who are part of the prison population.”
Iran, long an adversary of the United States, has been one of the hardest hit countries by the coronavirus. Its death toll of 1,284 by Thursday made it one of the worst-affected nations in the Middle East.
State TV reported that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would pardon 10,000 prisoners, including political inmates, in honor of Iran‘s new year on Friday. This week judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said the country had temporarily freed about 85,000 people, including political prisoners, in response to the coronavirus epidemic.
On Tuesday, Pompeo said in a news conference Tehran was considering freeing some U.S. citizens and urged them to do so as a humanitarian gesture due to the coronavirus.
It was not clear exactly how many Americans Iran may hold, but they include father and son Baquer and Siamak Namazi and possibly Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent missing since 2007.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Diane Craft and Jonathan Oatis)