Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anousheh Ashoori have returned to the UK after years of captivity in Iran while fellow British citizen Morad Tahbaz has been released on furlough inside Iran. The chartered plane carrying the two dual nationals touched down at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire at about 1.10am local time on Thursday.
News of their transfer to Imam Khomeini Airport was broken this morning by Nazanin’s local member of parliament in London, Tulip Siddiq. “Nazanin is at the airport in Tehran and on her way home,” the Hampstead MP wrote on Twitter shortly after 10am GMT. Their lawyer Hojjat Kermani then confirmed to Reuters that both Nazanin and Anoosheh were expected to leave Iran on Wednesday.
Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting then reported that the pair had been handed over to “the British government” at Imam Khomeini Airport and were due to leave the country on the same day. Judiciary spokesman Zabihullah Khodaian confirmed to Fars News Agency that Nazanin had served her sentence, and a travel ban had thus been lifted, while Anoosheh Ashoori was said to have been "pardoned" and granted “conditional release”.
A 30-second clip released by Fars News Agency on Wednesday purports to show Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe boarding a plane in Tehran
Footage released by Fars News Agency about three hours later, at 2pm GMT on Wednesday, purported to show Nazanin boarding a plane at the airport. The pair first travelled on the Sultan of Oman's private plane to Muscat, where the Omani government recently played a pivotal role in mediating between London and Tehran, before boarding a connecting flight to Brize Norton in England.
News of Nazanin and Anoosheh’s release came 24 hours after it emerged that Nazanin’s British passport had been returned to her for the first time since her arrest in summer 2016. Both she and Anousheh, who was arrested in 2017, were held hostage in Iran on fabricated “espionage” charges – and later in Nazanin’s case, for so-called “propaganda against the regime” - for a traumatic half-decade over a historic £400m debt Tehran claimed it was owed by the UK.
The IRGC-aligned Fars News Agency reported confidently on Wednesday that Nazanin's freedom had come in "exchange" for £400m in blocked Iranian assets, as well as the release of one, as-yet unnamed Iranian national being held in the UK. Neither government has yet confirmed whether a prisoner swap was indeed part of the agreement.
On Wednesday morning, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told reporters: “We have been clear this is a legitimate debt that we do owe Iran and we have been seeking ways to pay it.”
UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss confirmed the news on Twitter
Iran's official news agency IRNA also briefly carried a line in its online coverage of the day’s events stating that Morad Tahbaz, a British-Iranian-American environmentalist born in Hammersmith, West London, had also been released on furlough but remained in Iran with his wife. Tahbaz has cancer and has been held in Iran since January 2018, facing a 10-year sentence for “espionage”.
The line was deleted by IRNA shortly afterward. But in a subsequent tweet, Truss confirmed the same. “I can confirm Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anousheh Ashoori will return to the UK today, and Morad Tahbaz has been released from prison on furlough,” she wrote on Twitter. “They will be reunited with their families later today.” Tahbaz's family told the BBC they were "devastated" that he had been "left behind" in Iran.
Rupert Skilbeck, the director of Redress, an NGO that works with the victims of torture, told the UK’s Sky News that he had been in contact with Nazanin’s husband Richard Ratcliffe early on Wednesday morning. “It’s obviously the final stages of the release, where she will hopefully be put on a plane," he said. "But until that actually happens, everyone is incredibly anxious. We can only imagine what these last moments are like for them.”
Activists share a picture of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe aboard the plane
Finally in the afternoon, Siddiq and members of the #FreeNazanin campaign shared a photo of Nazanin on the flight out of Tehran. Pictures later surfaced of Anousheh and Nazanin being greeted by officials in Oman, where they boarded a flight to the UK.
Photos were later published showing the pair arriving in Oman for their connecting flight to the UK
Photos shared by Foreign Office Middle East Director Stephanie Al-Qaq of the flight out from Tehran
Speaking to the BBC after the first plane left Tehran, Richard Ratcliffe said: “This wouldn’t have happened today without all the care and support of people up and down the country... It’s been a cruel experience, in some ways. But it has also been an exposure to such a level of kindness and care from all walks of life. So I am deeply grateful to everyone that has got Nazanin home, that got Anoosheh home, that got Morad out on furlough.”
He added that he believed the British government now had “two jobs”: “Protect people in situations like this, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Anousheh Ashouri’s family have also confirmed they are expecting him home soon
The family of Anoosheh Ashoori also released a statement confirming they would be expecting him to land in the UK tonight. “1,672 days ago our family’s foundations were rocked when our father and husband was unjustly detained and taken away from us,” they said. “Now, we can look forward to rebuilding these same foundations with our cornerstone back in place.”
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: Six Years of Heartache in Headlines
British media reporting on Nazanin’s release early on Wednesday
Now aged 44 and away from home for almost six years, British-Iranian mother-of-one Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is arguably the best-known globally of the foreign citizens and dual nationals held hostage by Tehran in recent years. Formerly a charity worker with the Thompson Reuters Foundation, in April 2016 she and her young daughter Gabriella were detained at Imam Khomeini Airport after traveling back to Iran to visit family.
Nazanin was then sentenced to five years in prison on “espionage” charges. None of the supposed evidence against her was ever made public by the judiciary or the Islamic Republic. The pair spent more than three years in Evin Prison before Gabriella, by then aged five, was allowed to return to her father Richard Ratcliffe in Britain.
Richard Ratcliffe and daughter Gabriella protesting in central London last year
Richard Ratcliffe, family members and supporters have staged a tireless campaign for his wife’s release. There have been repeated fears for Nazanin’s physical and mental health in the intervening years, together with vanishing prospects of the couple being able to have a second child when she returns. She was transferred to house arrest in Tehran with an enforced ankle tag at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.
Successive UK Foreign Ministers have tried to intervene in the case, under escalating public pressure. In 2019 Nazanin was granted official diplomatic protection by the UK government, making it a formal state-to-state issue. Last May, then-Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it was “difficult to argue” that her treatment in Iran would not amount to torture.
The Revolutionary Court sentenced Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to an additional year in prison last March
However, in late 2017, then-Foreign Minister and now Prime Minister Boris Johnson incorrectly said Nazanin had been “teaching journalism in Iran”. The mistake was seized on by Iranian state media and paved the way for fresh charges to be brought against her – first in late 2017, then revived just before her release in November 2020. To this day, Iranian state media outlets wrongly refer to Nazanin as a journalist and publications refuse to acknowledge her dual-national status, referring to her only as “Nazanin Zaghari”.
After the court hearing was rescheduled several times, Nazanin made a final appearance before Judge Abolghasem Salavati in the Revolutionary Court on Mother’s Day 2021, which the British Embassy failed to attend. She was then sentenced to a further year for so-called “propaganda against the regime”, which expired last weekend. Iranian media has described her release as an "exchange", though according to the country's own judicial records there was no longer any reason to hold her.
Anousheh Ashouri: A Father-of-Two Abducted Off the Street
Father-of-two Anousheh Ashouri sent several pleas for help via voice messages from Evin Prison
Anoosheh Ashoori, a retired engineer is his late 60s, had lived in the UK for 11 years with his wife and children and regularly travelled between Britain and Tehran without issue before he was taken hostage. He also lived in the UK for 10 years in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Five years ago in 2017, Anoosheh returned home to take care of his mother after she had knee surgery, and was on his way home from the market one day when he was abducted by the IRGC and taken to Evin Prison. A full two years later in August 2019, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly spying for Israeli spy agency Mossad, and another two years for supposedly "acquiring illegitimate wealth".
Elika and Arian Ashoori protest outside the Iranian Embassy in London in early 2020
In April 2020 Anoosheh released a harrowing audio message from behind bars. “Today is my 66th birthday and I am spending this day as a hostage in this circle of hell called Evin Prison," he said. "The allegations against me are false and none of them are true.” His daughter Elika confirmed to IranWire that her father had never had anything to do with the Iranian government.
That November, his wife Shahrzad Izadi told IranWire for the first time about the torture her husband had experienced during interrogation. Anoosheh had tried to kill himself twice, she revealed, in the belief that by doing so he could stop Iran’s security services from making good on threats to harm his family. "My husband reached a point where he thought that were he not alive, his family would be safe,” she said.
Over the years, Anoosheh’s and Nazanin’s cases have been highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, by the European Parliament, by UK parliamentarians calling for Magnitsky sanctions to be imposed on Iranian hostage-takers, and by a global consortium of former hostages and their families who joined hands against the practice under the banner of a new NGO, Hostage Aid Worldwide.
The families support each other during Richard Ratciffe’s hunger strike outside the Foreign Office in November 2021
In the final 12 months of Nazanin and Anoosheh’s incarceration, Richard Ratcliffe went on a 21-day hunger strike camped outside the Foreign Office to draw attention to his wife’s case, supported on a near-nightly basis by Anoosheh Ashoori’s family. Ex-Iran hostages Barry Rosen and Nizar Zakka did the same as nuclear talks resumed in Vienna in January, prompting Anoosheh Ashoori to join them in solidarity from inside Evin Prison.
Writing to IranWire during his own protest last November, Richard Ratcliffe said: “I’m really grateful to everyone who follows and shares our story inside Iran. The only thing all political prisoners in Iran need is to not suffer in silence. The way the Iranian government abuses its citizens is not normal. The important thing is that the world sees it. One day the Iranian government will pay. We will see that day."
Lives Still Hang in the Balance
Morad Tahbaz has been released from prison but is still being held in Iran
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz are far from the only British victims of hostage-taking in Iran. Tahbaz's future is still far from certain.
“We’re devastated,” his sister told the BBC’s World at One show on Wednesday. “We were always worried Morad would fall between the lines [because of his triple citizenship], but he was born in Britain, he’s there under trumped-up charges, he was visiting family as Nazanin was... He was taken hostage for exchange purposes. We’re very worried for his health. The Foreign Office has not contacted us directly; we’re learning this through the news.”
In mid-January the former British Council worker and UK resident Aras Amiri was freed after almost three years, finally acquitted of espionage. The previous February Kameel Ahmady, a British-Iranian anthropologist, escaped the country on foot after being sentenced to nine years for “collaboration with hostile governments”.
Still currently imprisoned are 65-year-old trade unionist Mehran Raoof and lawyer Shahram Shirkhani, as well as at least a dozen other foreign and dual nationals from around the world including but not limited to Benjamin Briere, Fariba Adelkhah, Ahmad Reza Jalali, Jamshid Sharmahd, Siamak and Baquer Namazi, and Nahid Taghavi.