Kylie Moore-Gilbert, the Australian-British academic detained by Iran on espionage charges, has been released in a prisoner exchange for three Iranians.
In what will be seen as a victory for Iranian state hostage-taking by some and a humanitarian move by others, Moore-Gilbert was released on Wednesday morning. The move also raises hopes for the fate of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, dual UK-Iranian nationals who have been held since 2016 and 2017 respectively.
Leaving Iran after 804 days in prison, Moore-Gilbert praised the people of Iran.
“I have nothing but respect, love and admiration for the great nation of Iran and its warm-hearted, generous and brave people,” she said. “It is with bittersweet feelings that I depart your country, despite the injustices which I have been subjected to.
“I came to Iran as a friend and with friendly intentions, and depart Iran with those sentiments not only still intact, but strengthened.”
Moore-Gilbert thanked the Australian government, and in particular, diplomats in Australia’s embassy in Tehran “who have been working tirelessly these past two years and three months to secure my release.
“Thank you also to all of you who have supported me and campaigned for my freedom, it has meant the world to me to have you behind me throughout what has been a long and traumatic ordeal.”
Moore-Gilbert’s family said they are “relieved and ecstatic” at her release. “We cannot convey the overwhelming happiness that each of us feel at this incredible news.”
Pictures released by the pictures released by the TV station IRIB showed the three released Iranians being greeted at an airport or hotel lounge by Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi.
Moore-Gilbert, wearing a grey scarf and mask, was shown in the lounge looking composed but concerned before being escorted with a companion to a van.
Iran’s Mehr news agency reported: “Today, two years after Gilbert’s conviction, the Islamic Republic finally decided to exchange her with three Iranian economic activists who had been detained for trying to circumvent sanctions.”
On its Telegram channel, the Iranian semi-official news agency Fars said Moore-Gilbert was exchanged for “an economic activist and two Iranian nationals detained abroad on trumped-up charges”.
Cambridge-educated Moore-Gilbert was a Middle East scholar at the University of Melbourne. She was convicted in a secret trial and given a 10-year sentence for espionage after being arrested in September 2018 in Tehran, where she had attended a conference.
Iran claimed she had connections with MI6 and links with Jewish universities. It was also claimed she had been researching the Syrian opposition and Bahrain Shias.
In letters smuggled out of prison, Moore-Gilbert consistently denied the charges alleged against her.
“I am an innocent woman,” she wrote to prison authorities last year, “[and] have been imprisoned for a crime I have not committed and for which there is no real evidence.”
She added: “I am not a spy. I have never been a spy and I have no interest in working for a spying organisation in any country. When I leave Iran, I want to be a free woman and live a free life, not under the shadow of extortion and threats.”
Two of the released Iranian men appear to have been convicted of terrorism eight years ago in Thailand. Thai officials believed the men were part of an attempt to assassinate Israeli diplomats in Bangkok.
Saeid Moradi, then 29, had his legs blown off when a bomb he attempted to throw at police detonated at his feet. He had been sentenced to life in prison for carrying explosives as well as for attempted murder. A second Iranian, Mohammad Kharzei, 43, was jailed for 15 years for possessing explosives.
Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International UK, said: “We were always extremely concerned that Kylie was imprisoned solely for exercising her right to freedom of expression – including through her work as an academic – and it’s an enormous relief to hear of her release.
“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.”
Earlier this year Moore-Gilbert had been moved to Qarchak women’s prison, widely regarded as the worst women’s prison in Iran . In what may have been the start of her release process, Moore-Gilbert was moved back to Tehran’s Evin prison two months ago where she had spent the bulk of her time in detention since she was seized two years ago.
Moore-Gilbert recently met the head of Iran’s prisons organisation, Mohammad Mehdi Haj-Mohammadi, and the secretary of the Iranian high council for human rights, Ali Bagheri-Kani, and reportedly raised issues about her incarceration.
Friends and colleagues of Moore-Gilbert who had been campaigning for her release said they were “over the moon” at her release after 804 days in detention.
“But let’s be clear: This should never have happened,” the campaign group said in a statement. “Kylie was held to ransom by the Iranian regime, which saw fit to take an innocent Australian woman hostage in order to bring its own convicted prisoners abroad home. It’s a despicable business model with incalculable human consequences.”
The group thanked Australian diplomats who had worked for Moore-Gilbert’s release and called on governments around the world to put pressure on Iran to abandon hostage diplomacy.
“Lives are being needlessly destroyed by a morally bankrupt regime that knows no currency other than cruelty.”
Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian human rights lawyer and political prisoner, was a close friend of Moore-Gilbert’s when they shared a cell in Evin. Sotoudeh, imprisoned since June 2018, was released, at least temporarily, a fortnight ago due to ill health.
She had twice gone on hunger strike to demand authorities release other political prisoners at risk of infection in the country’s often overcrowded and unsanitary detention facilities. Sotoudeh’s latest hunger strike ended after six weeks when she was admitted to hospital in poor health.