SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: August 08, 2016

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution

Institution(s):Princeton University

Region & Country:Southern Asia | Iran

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On August 8, 2016, Iranian authorities arrested Xiyue Wang, a graduate student of history at Princeton University, in connection with research he was conducting in Iran for his doctoral dissertation. He has since been convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison on charges of “infiltration.”

Mr. Wang is a fourth-year PhD candidate at Princeton University, specializing in 19th- and 20th-century Eurasian history. In the summer of 2016, in connection with his doctoral dissertation, he travelled to Iran to research the Qajar dynasty. There, he conducted research in Iran’s National Archives and other libraries, which included scanning public records dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

On August 8, 2016, Mr. Wang was reportedly arrested by Iranian authorities on charges that were not disclosed for approximately 11 months. On July 16, 2017, it was reported that an Iranian court had sentenced him to ten years in prison for “infiltration,” based on allegations that Mr. Wang had been “gathering secret and top secret [intelligence]” for the US State Department, among others, and had scanned over 4,500 pages of documents.

Research in the National Archive is subject to a lengthy approval process subject to heavy oversight. This process includes interviews by archives security staff about the content of research and the researcher’s academic background; formal, written requests for the documents or materials to be reviewed; and scanning of approved materials by archives personnel. Mr. Wang reportedly had trouble gaining access to the National Archive, but received assistance through contacts provided by the British Institute for Persian Studies, in London. The level of oversight normally applied to National Archive research raises significant questions about Mr. Wang’s ability to access “secret or top secret” intelligence in the course of his work.

As of this report, Mr. Wang has filed an appeal. The date of his appeal hearing is unknown.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arbitrary arrest and prosecution of a student in apparent retaliation for the non-violent exercise of the right to academic freedom — conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran has acceded. In addition to the harm to the victim, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally. State authorities have a responsibility to refrain from arbitrary arrest and prosecution of scholars for peacefully exercising their internationally recognized rights to academic freedom and education.

UPDATE: On August 17, 2017, it was reported that Iranian authorities denied Mr. Wang’s appeal.

UPDATE: On December 7, 2019, Iranian authorities released Mr. Wang to US authorities in a prisoner exchange. Mr. Wang has since returned to the US.