Iran says British-Australian academic freed for 3 Iranians

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran on Wednesday freed a British-Australian academic who had been detained in the country for over two years, in exchange for three Iranians held abroad, state TV announced.

The television report was scant on detail, saying only that the three Iranians freed in the swap had been imprisoned for trying to bypass sanctions on Iran.

Kylie Moore-Gilbert, 33, was a Melbourne University lecturer on Middle Eastern studies when she was picked up at the Tehran airport while trying to leave the country after attending an academic conference in 2018. She was sent to Tehran’s Evin prison, convicted of spying and sentenced to 10 years behind bars. Moore-Gilbert had vehemently denied the charges and maintained her innocence.

She was one of several Westerners held in Iran on widely criticized espionage charges that activists and U.N. investigators believe is a systematic effort to leverage their imprisonments for money or influence in negotiations with the West, which Tehran denies. Moore-Gilbert wrote in a series of letters to Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison detailing her plight that she had been imprisoned “to extort” the Australian government.

Moore-Gilbert’s detention had strained relations between Iran and the West at a time of already escalating tensions, which reached a fever pitch earlier this year following the American killing of a top Iranian general in Baghdad and retaliatory Iranian strikes on a U.S. military base.

It was not immediately clear when Moore-Gilbert would arrive back in Australia. State TV aired footage showing her clad in a gray hijab sitting at what appeared to be a greeting room at Mehrabad International Airport in Tehran. Accompanied by another Western woman in a colorful headscarf, Moore-Gilbert wore a blue face mask tucked under her chin and a stoic expression. The timing of her release also remained unclear, but the TV footage showed faint sunlight streaming through windows during the swap. Later, footage showed Moore-Gilbert being escorted to a large grey van after nightfall.

The state TV report did not elaborate on the Iranians it described as “economic activists” freed in exchange for Moore-Gilbert. They wore Iranian flags draped over their shoulders, black baseball caps pulled down over their eyes and surgical masks, outfits apparently designed to conceal their identities onscreen. Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, welcomed the three Iranians at the airport.

International pressure has been building on Iran to release Moore-Gilbert. She has gone on repeated hunger strikes and her health has deteriorated during long stretches in solitary confinement. Over the summer, she was transferred to the remote Qarchak Prison, east of Tehran, as fears escalated over the spread of the coronavirus in the country’s notoriously crowded prisons.

Moore-Gilbert has appealed to the Australian government to work harder for her release. In her letters to Prime Minister Morrison, she wrote that she had been subjected to “grievous violations” of her rights, including psychological torture.

There was no immediate comment from Australian authorities on Moore-Gilbert’s release.