Australian-British academic freed in Iran prisoner swap

By: AFP      Published: 11:10 AM, 26 Nov, 2020
Australian-British academic freed in Iran prisoner swap

An Australian-British lecturer jailed for spying by Iran has been released after two "traumatic" years, part of a swap for three Iranian prisoners reportedly linked to a botched Bangkok bomb plot.

Middle East scholar Kylie Moore-Gilbert said leaving Iran was "bittersweet" despite the "injustices" she had endured during more than 800 days detained in some of Iran's toughest prisons.

"I came to Iran as a friend and with friendly intentions," she said, praising the "warm-hearted, generous and brave" Iranian people.

After what she called a "long and traumatic ordeal", the University of Melbourne Islamic studies lecturer said she faced a "challenging period of adjustment" at home in Australia.

The 33-year-old was arrested by Iran's hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in 2018, after attending an academic conference in the holy city of Qom in central Iran. She was later charged with espionage and sentenced to ten years in jail. 

The first images of a freed Moore-Gilbert emerged from Iranian state television late Wednesday, sparking elation from friends and family who had campaigned for her freedom and maintain her innocence.

"We are relieved and ecstatic," the family said in a statement. "We cannot convey the overwhelming happiness that each of us feel at this incredible news." 

An image grab from footage obtained from Iranian State TV IRIB on November 25 shows three unidentified men -- one of them in a wheelchair -- draped in Iranian flags and being met by officials upon their swap for freed Australian-British academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who was serving a 10-year prison sentence for spying, in Iran.–AFP

In footage broadcast by Iran's Irib news agency from Tehran airport, Moore-Gilbert was seen wearing a headscarf and a face mask, accompanied by the Australian ambassador. 

Seemingly aware of the camera, she removed the mask to confirm her identity.

The outlet also showed a video of three unidentified men -- one of them in a wheelchair -- draped in Iranian flags and being met by officials, including deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi.

There was no immediate confirmation of the identity of the trio, but they were said to be part of a prisoner swap.

The Sydney Morning Herald named the three as Mohammad Khazaei, Masoud Sedaghat Zadeh and Saeed Moradi. All three were being held in Thailand after a failed plot to assassinate Israeli diplomats in 2012. Moradi lost both legs in a botched explosion.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison would only say that Australia had not released any prisoners. 

He added that he had spoken to Moore-Gilbert and confirmed she would receive health and psychological support on her return. 

"She is an amazing Australian who has gone through an ordeal that we can only imagine and it will be a tough transition for her," he said at a virtual press conference.

- Prison letters -

Letters smuggled out of prison told of Moore-Gilbert's deep psychological and legal struggles.

She wrote that the first 10 months she spent in a wing of Tehran's notorious Evin prison had "gravely damaged" her mental health.

"I am still denied phone calls and visitations, and I am afraid that my mental and emotional state may further deteriorate if I remain in this extremely restrictive detention ward," she said.

She also recounted rejecting Tehran's offer to work as a spy.

"I am not a spy. I have never been a spy and I have no interest to work for a spying organisation in any country."

She said she had been shown two different draft decisions to her appeal -– one for a 13-month sentence, another confirming the original sentence of 10 years.

She was eventually transferred to the general women's section of Evin prison, where British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was held until being granted temporary leave because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe's husband said she was "really happy" when he told her about Moore-Gilbert's release.

Throughout Moore-Gilbert's internment, friends and family had become increasingly critical of Australia's diplomatic approach.

Australian foreign minister Marise Payne said the release followed "determined work" and described the case as "complex and sensitive".

The US State Department welcomed Moore-Gilbert's release but said "she should never have been imprisoned," accusing Iran of "hostage diplomacy".

British foreign secretary Dominic Raab, in a tweet, called on Iran to "release all the remaining British dual nationals" detained in the country.

Iran, which has tense relations with the West, has over the years arrested several foreign nationals, often on accusations of spying.