An Australian couple jailed in Iran for several months after being accused of spying have been released and allowed to fly home in an apparent prisoner swap deal that may have also involved US and British authorities.
Jolie King and Mark Firkin, from Perth in Western Australia, had been journeying around the world and blogging about their travel adventures over the past two years. They were arrested for reportedly flying a drone without a permit.
King and Firkin were accused of using the drone to take pictures of “military sites and forbidden areas”, an Iranian judiciary spokesman said last month. But the charges were dropped prior to their release.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Saturday the pair had been reunited with their family following “very sensitive negotiations” with Tehran.
“We are extremely happy and relieved to be safely back in Australia with those we love,” the couple said in a statement issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on Saturday. “While the past few months have been very difficult, we know it has also been tough for those back home who have been worried for us.”
Academic still detained
The couple asked for privacy and said intense media coverage “may not be helpful” in negotiations for the release of a third Australian detained in Iran in a separate case.
Melbourne academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert remains in the notorious Evin jail north of Tehran, which is used to house political prisoners.
Dr Moore-Gilbert is a Middle East expert at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute, who specializes in Arab Gulf states.
The academic, who has also studied at Cambridge and like King is a dual British-Australian citizen, was arrested late last year. She is believed to have been convicted of espionage – “spying for another country” – and sentenced to 10 years in jail by Iranian authorities.
Negotiations over the fate of the university lecturer are “very long term”, the Foreign Minister Payne said.
“She has been detained for some considerable time and has faced the Iranian legal system and has been convicted and sentenced,” the foreign minister told reporters.
“We don’t accept the charges on which she was convicted and we would seek to have her returned to Australia. The situation is very complex,” Payne added, declining to comment further on the case.
The arrests came to light last month after Canberra announced it would contribute a frigate and surveillance aircraft to a US-led mission to protect shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, with tensions high in the Gulf region.
Payne has maintained the cases of those detained were not related to diplomatic tensions.
Iranian student freed by Australia
Shortly after Canberra’s announcement that King and Firkin had been freed and allowed to fly home, Tehran had its own good news.
An Iranian student detained in Australia for 13 months on accusations of circumventing US sanctions on military equipment was shown arriving back in Tehran after being released, state television reported on Saturday.
Reza Dehbashi, a PhD student at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, was arrested on allegations of “attempting to purchase and transfer advanced American military radar equipment via Dubai to Iran”, the Iranian television website said.
“Australia’s legal system intended to extradite Mr Dehbashi to America, but he was eventually released,” as Iran’s foreign ministry had “resolved” the issue, it said.
State television showed footage of what it said was Dehbashi arriving at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport and hugging a tearful woman apparently from his family.
It said Dehbashi had been working on a “skin cancer detection device” at the time of his arrest and that he had dismissed the charges as “a misunderstanding” and “unfair”.
Australia’s Attorney-General Christian Porter confirmed in a statement later that he had stopped the extradition of Reza Dehbashi to the United States.
But he dismissed “speculation” over the case, amid reports that it could be part of a prisoner swap involving the travel bloggers King and Firkin.
Porter declined to comment further “particularly when any such response from me may diminish our government’s capacity to deal with future matters of this type in Australia’s best interests.”
Prisoner swap proposal
News of the Australians release came just weeks after an Iranian woman arrested in Australia and sentenced in the United States was returned home.
Negar Ghodskani was sentenced last month in Minneapolis to 27 months in prison for violating sanctions against Tehran but released by a judge who said she had served enough time in custody in Australia and the United States.
There is speculation that her release may have been part of a prisoner swap deal with Iranian authorities.
After her extradition to the US, Ghodskani confessed to participation in a conspiracy to illegally export technology to Iran in breach of sanctions, according to the US Justice Department.
She was pregnant when she was arrested in 2017 in Australia where she was a legal resident. She gave birth while in Australian custody and her son was sent to Iran to live with his father.
British media outlets have been speculating about possible prisoner swaps with Iran for many weeks.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif floated a potential prisoner swap in April with a British-Iranian mother being held in Tehran.
He suggested exchanging Ghodskani for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, in jail in Tehran for alleged sedition. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was also separated from her child while in custody.
With reporting by AFP