Amid speculation over the identity of the Iranians, Thai officials on Thursday said they had approved the transfer to Tehran of three men held in a failed 2012 bomb plot.
Moore-Gilbert, 33, a Melbourne University lecturer in Middle Eastern studies, was detained at the Tehran airport in 2018 and charged with spying after attending an academic conference in Iran. She strongly denied the charges and went on repeated hunger strikes to protest her imprisonment.
International pressure had been growing for her release. This summer she was temporarily transferred from Iran’s notorious Evin prison to another feared facility, the Qarchak women’s prison, amid concerns over coronavirus outbreaks in overcrowded jails.
Human rights groups accused Iran of holding Moore-Gilbert — in addition to at least half a dozen other foreign nationals and dual citizens — as a bargaining chip. In a letter to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison last year, Moore-Gilbert accused Iranian authorities of trying to “extort me both personally and my government” by keeping her detained. Iran has denied the allegations.
Thai officials said Thursday that they had transferred three Iranian nationals — Masoud Sedaghatzadeh, Saeid Moradi and Mohammad Kharzei — through an agreement with Iran. The men were imprisoned for a botched 2012 bombing that Thai authorities said targeted Israeli diplomats. Iran denied the charges.
Thailand’s deputy attorney general Chatchom Akapin notably did not call the move a prisoner exchange or comment on Australia’s involvement. “These types of transfers aren’t unusual” between Thailand and other countries, he said Thursday, according to the Associated Press.
Morrison speaking to Australian media on Thursday called Moore-Gilbert’s release a “miracle” following “many false starts in the process.” He also declined to comment on the specifics of the transfer, saying it could endanger other Australian nationals detained internationally.
Moore-Gilbert thanked those who campaigned for her release in a statement Thursday. “It has meant the world to me to have you behind me throughout what has been a long and traumatic ordeal,” she wrote.
“I have nothing but respect, love and admiration for the great nation of Iran and its warm-hearted, generous and brave people,” she continued. “It is with bittersweet feelings that I depart your country, despite the injustices which I have been subjected to.”
Iranian state television released footage Wednesday of Moore-Gilbert in a gray head covering at what appeared to be Mehrabad International Airport in Tehran, according to the AP. Footage later showed her being escorted to a van. The same report aired footage of what appeared to be the three Iranians released in exchange. Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, greeted the three men, who had Iranian flags draped over them and caps pulled down to cover their faces, the AP reported.
Iranian reports initially provided few details about the three men, whom the semiofficial news agency Fars described as “an economic activist and two Iranian nationals detained abroad on trumped-up charges.” The Wednesday report called Moore-Gilbert “a Zionist spy.”
Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, called the news of Moore-Gilbert’s release “an enormous relief” and suggested there may be reason for optimism about detainees. “There may now be renewed grounds for hoping that UK-Iranian dual-nationals like Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori will also be released from their unjust jail terms in Iran in the coming days or weeks,” she said in a statement.
Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the D.C.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tweeted that Moore-Gilbert’s release reflected how “Iran has 2 parallel regimes working in concert: Those w/ power take hostages, build nuclear programs, support regional militias, carry out assassinations, and are inaccessible to Western officials. Those w/o real power deny these activities and are accessible to Western officials.”