Two detained British-Iranians, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, have arrived back in the United Kingdom after a lengthy prison ordeal in Iran, while a third, Morad Tahbaz, who also has US citizenship, was released from prison on furlough.
Zhagari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori touched down at the British military airbase of Brize Norton in Oxfordshire shortly after 1am local time (01:00 GMT), after flying back via a brief stopover in Oman.
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They walked off the plane together and smiled and waved as they entered an airport building.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed the release on Wednesday after the Iranian media said the British government had paid Tehran a 400-million-pound ($520m) debt dating from before the Islamic Revolution.
“I can confirm Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori will return to the UK today, and Morad Tahbaz has been released from prison on furlough. They will be reunited with their families later today,” Truss wrote on Twitter.
“We will continue to work to secure Morad’s departure from Iran,” she added.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote: “I am very pleased to confirm that the unfair detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori in Iran has ended today, and they will now return to the UK.
“The UK has worked intensively to secure their release and I am delighted they will be reunited with their families and loved ones.”
Meanwhile, a British Labour MP Tulip Siddiq shared a picture of Zaghari-Ratcliffe from inside a plane, saying: “It’s been 6 long years – and I can’t believe I can FINALLY share this photo. Nazanin is now in the air flying away from 6 years of hell in Iran. My heart goes out to Gabriella [daughter] and Richard [husband], as her long journey back home to them gets closer by the minute.”
It’s been 6 long years – and I can’t believe I can FINALLY share this photo.
Nazanin is now in the air flying away from 6 years of hell in Iran.
— Tulip Siddiq (@TulipSiddiq) March 16, 2022
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation was arrested at a Tehran airport in April 2016 and later convicted by an Iranian court of plotting to overthrow the clerical establishment.
Her family and the foundation, a charity that operates independently of Thomson Reuters and its news subsidiary Reuters, deny the charge.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard said the long ordeal appeared to finally be over. “It’s just a relief, the idea that we can go back to being a normal family, that we don’t have to keep fighting, that this long journey is almost over,” he told Reuters outside his London home before she landed.
A statement from Ashoori’s family thanked everyone who had worked towards his release. “1672 days ago our family’s foundations were rocked when our father and husband was unjustly detained and taken away from us.
“Now, we can look forward to rebuilding those same foundations with our cornerstone back in place.”
Antonio Zappulla, the head of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said everyone at the organisation was overjoyed at the news of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release and she would be welcomed back there whenever she was ready.
“In a time when the world is in turmoil and the news has been consistently bleak, Nazanin’s freedom is a ray of light and hope,” he said in a statement. “Her reunion with her family cannot come soon enough, and we cannot wait to have her back with us at the Thomson Reuters Foundation whenever she is ready.”
Ashoori was sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2019 for spying for Israel’s Mossad and two years for “acquiring illegitimate wealth”, according to Iran’s judiciary.
Zabihollah Khodayian, Iran’s judiciary spokesman, was quoted as saying by Fars news agency on Wednesday that Ashoori was released conditionally “due to his age and physical condition”.
Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, told reporters in Tehran that Iran received the 400m pound debt from the UK several days ago, but denied any connection with the two prisoners’ release.
“I announce explicitly that there is no connection between the release of this sum and these people who were arrested and tried in Iran for espionage and security reasons,” he said.
Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s chief executive, welcomed the “fantastic news” of the release, saying both were “jailed on trumped-up national security charges”.
“The government needs to follow up on Nazanin and Anoosheh’s release by immediately renewing its calls for the release of the UK nationals Mehran Raoof and Morad Tahbaz, both of whom are still going through an ordeal all too similar to Nazanin and Anoosheh’s,” he added.
Mehran Raoof, a labour rights activist, was detained in October 2020 and was being held in solitary confinement, according to Amnesty.
Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-American who also holds British nationality, was arrested alongside other environmentalists in January 2018 and sentenced to 10 years in jail for “conspiring with America”.
The UK has consciously avoided saying the detention of dual nationals in Iran was linked to the debt, related to an order of tanks that was cancelled after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Truss has said the issues were separate and blamed sanctions on Iran for delaying the repayment.
“The IMS (International Military Services) debt has been settled in full compliance with UK and international sanctions and all legal obligations,” she said in a statement on Wednesday.