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Iran Frees British-Australian Scholar in Prisoner Swap

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Iranian state media said the scholar, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, was released in return for three Iranians. Social media identified the Iranians as men detained in Thailand on bomb plot charges.

A still image from a video of Kylie Moore-Gilbert in 2017. The British-Australian scholar was serving a ten-year sentence in Iran’s notorious Evin prison. A still image from a video of Kylie Moore-Gilbert in 2017. The British-Australian scholar was serving a ten-year sentence in Iran’s notorious Evin prison.Credit…The Modern Middle East, via Associated Press

  • Nov. 25, 2020

Iran released a British-Australian scholar, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, detained since 2018 on charges of spying for Israel, in a prisoner swap conducted Wednesday for three Iranian men described by Iran’s official media as businessmen who had been held abroad.

Iran did not reveal the identities of the three citizens it said had been swapped for Ms. Moore-Gilbert nor the identity of the country or countries where they had been held. But social media channels affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iran identified the three as Saeed Moradi, Mohammad Khazaei and Masoud Sedaghat Zadeh, all detained in Thailand since 2012 on charges of having planned to bomb the capital, Bangkok, and assassinate Israeli diplomats there.

Mr. Moradi lost both legs in a botched bombing in Thailand as Thai police, apparently acting on a tip from Israeli intelligence, broke up a plot eight years ago that was later tied to Iran, despite official Iranian denials.

Television footage from the prisoner swap shown on state television in Iran on Wednesday showed one of the men in a wheelchair. Their faces were covered with masks and they were wearing hats, making it difficult to identify them.

There was no immediate comment about the swap from either Thailand or Israel. Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia said he was “thrilled and relieved” at Ms. Moore-Gilbert’s release but provided no details on how it had been arranged.

The Iranian television footage showed Ms. Moore-Gilbert, wearing a gray head scarf and a mask, waiting in a room along with another woman. The three Iranian men, draped in Iran’s flag, were seen passing through the door and greeted with flowers and leis to chants of praise for the Prophet Muhammad.

Ms. Moore-Gilbert was shown leaving the building via the same door and boarding a minivan with her bags for an unknown destination.

In a statement later released by Australia’s Foreign Ministry, Ms. Moore-Gilbert thanked Australian officials for having extricated her from “a long and traumatic ordeal.” She asked that the news media respect her privacy for what would “undoubtedly be a challenging period of adjustment.”

Ms. Moore-Gilbert was a lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne when she went to Iran in 2018 to attend a conference. Agents of the Revolutionary Guards arrested her at the airport as she was leaving on charges of spying for Israel.

She had been serving a 10-year sentence, much of it in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, and had staged several hunger strikes in opposition to her conviction. She had said her mental state was deteriorating with solitary confinement and prolonged detention.

Iran has a long history of detaining foreign citizens and dual nationals on bogus charges of espionage and swapping them for Iranians incarcerated abroad — particularly those charged with helping Iran violate sanctions.

“Iran has been using hostage-taking as a tool of statecraft for four decades now. The Revolutionary Guards are blatant about it and believe it delivers results,” said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow with the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Among the tragedies of modern Iran is a society that is famous for its hospitality to foreigners, and a regime which views them as potential assets to be traded.”

Charles Reese, a friend of Ms. Moore-Gilbert from her time at Cambridge University, said he had felt anxious in the past few months after having learned that Ms. Moore-Gilbert had been moved to Qarchak prison, southeast of Tehran, in July.

“We heard that there were movements, but since we saw so little activity we weren’t confident that there would be any development,” said Mr. Reese, who has been in contact with Ms. Moore-Gilbert’s family.

Mr. Reese said he had learned of her release from a BBC journalist after hearing rumors over the past few days. Ms. Moore-Gilbert’s relatives have declined to comment on her fate since her arrest.

The prisoner exchange came five months after Iran released an American Navy veteran, Michael R. White, as part of a prisoner exchange.

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said in September that Iran was ready to swap more prisoners with the United States, but he has repeatedly rejected the accusation that his country takes hostages as political pawns and has said the judiciary is independent.

More than a half-dozen foreign and dual nationals are now being held in Iranian prisons: the Iranian-American citizens Siamak Namazi, a businessman, and his father, Baquer Namazi, a former official with Unicef; Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-American environmentalist; Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian charity worker with the Thomson Reuters Foundation; Nahid Taghavi, a German-Iranian architect; Fariba Adelkhah, a French-Iranian academic; and Dr. Ahmad Reza Jalali, a Swedish-Iranian physician and researcher.

Iran sentenced Dr. Jalali to death on charges of spying for Israel, and his family and lawyer in Iran have expressed alarm that he faces imminent execution.

Dr. Jalali’s fate has attracted enormous attention among academics and scholars. On Wednesday, Sir Richard J. Roberts, a 1993 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, sent a letter signed by him and 152 other Nobel laureates to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urging him to allow Dr. Jalali “to return home to his wife and children and continue his scholarly work for the benefit of mankind.”

Reporting was contributed by Elian Peltier from London, Rick Gladstone from New York, Yan Zhuang from Melbourne, Australia, and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv, Israel.

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