Academic freed in Iran prisoner swap hails end of 'traumatic ordeal'

Academic freed in Iran prisoner swap hails end of 'traumatic ordeal'

Australian-British academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert was serving a 10-year prison sentence for spying
Australian-British academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert was serving a 10-year prison sentence for spying

SYDNEY - An Australian-British academic has been freed in Iran after more than two years in jail for spying and said Thursday her release -- part of a swap for three Iranians -- had ended a "long and traumatic ordeal".

After more than 800 days imprisoned on spying charges, Middle East scholar Kylie Moore-Gilbert said departing Iran would be "bittersweet" despite the "injustices" she had endured.

"I came to Iran as a friend and with friendly intentions," she said in a statement distributed by the Australian government while praising "warm-hearted, generous and brave" Iranians.

The first images of a freed Moore-Gilbert emerged from Iranian state television late Wednesday, sparking elation from friends and family who had campaigned hard against her 10-year sentence and adamantly protested 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."

In footage broadcast by Iran's Iribnews from Tehran airport, Moore-Gilbert was seen wearing a headscarf and a Covid facemask, accompanied by the Australian ambassador.

Seemingly aware of the camera, she removed the mask, helping to confirm her identity, before being seen getting into a white van.

Australian Prime Minister Morrison said he had spoken to Moore-Gilbert, describing her tone of voice as "very uplifting", but said she was still processing her release.

"She's an extraordinary, strong, courageous and intelligent person to be able to get through this awful ordeal," he told Channel 9, adding she would receive debriefings, health and psychological support on her return to Australia.

"It'll be quite an adjustment when she gets home."

Friends told AFP they were "over the moon" at the news and in a joint statement said: "today is a very bright day".

There was no immediate confirmation of the identity of the three Iranians who were part of the reported prisoner swap, or where they came from.

Iran's state Iribnews reported "a businessman and two (other) Iranian citizens detained abroad on the basis of false accusations were freed in exchange for a spy with dual nationality working for" Israel, identifying Moore-Gilbert by name.

The outlet showed 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.

- Prison letters -

Moore-Gilbert's arrest was confirmed by Iran in September 2019.

But it is believed that the lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne was arrested at Tehran airport by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a year earlier after attending an academic conference in the holy city of Qom, in central Iran.

According to letters smuggled out of prison, Moore-Gilbert, who is in her early 30s, had rejected Tehran's offer to work as a spy.

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

"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 decisions to her appeal -– one for a 13-month sentence, another confirming the original sentence of 10 years.

"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 wrote.

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 due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

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

"I don't know what it means for us, it's definitely a good thing for Kylie and it's definitely a good thing for all of us that deals are being done," Richard Ratcliffe said.

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

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

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

They include French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah, who was detained in the Islamic republic in June 2019.

Two other Australians, travel bloggers Jolie King and Mark Firkin, were released in October 2019, in another apparent swap.

The US State Department welcomed Moore-Gilbert's release but said "she should never have been imprisoned".

"The Iranian regime continues to engage in hostage diplomacy, and we caution all Americans from travelling to Iran as it seeks to gain further leverage," a spokesperson said.

burs-arb/hr/jah

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