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Two British citizens detained in Iran for years are on way home, U.K. says

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, both dual British-Iranian nationals, were returning to the U.K. on Wednesday, the British government said.
Image: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was imprisoned in Iran in April 2016.Zaghari family / Wana News Agency via Reuters file

Two British citizens imprisoned in Iran for years were returning home on Wednesday, the U.K. government said, ending lengthy ordeals that have strained relations between Tehran and London.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was detained in Iran for nearly six years, was "in the air" and beginning her journey back to the U.K., her local lawmaker, Tulip Siddiq, said. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “flying away from 6 years of hell in Iran,” Siddiq wrote on Twitter alongside an image of the aid worker seemingly aboard the plane.  

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss also said that Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 43, would return Wednesday. They added that another British citizen, Anoosheh Ashoori, a retired engineer in his 60s who has been held in Iran since 2017, was headed back to the U.K.

Both “will be reunited with their families later today,” Truss said, without specifying where that was set to take place.

The news will further raise hopes that the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers may be imminent after months of talks in Vienna. Former President Donald Trump backed out of the deal in 2018.

But for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family and supporters, it brings a happy end to a tireless campaign that has pushed for her release since April 2016. Her husband Richard Ratcliffe, who lives in London with their daughter Gabriella, 6, went on hunger strike in October to highlight her case. He ended it after 21 days.

Ratcliffe said his wife had asked him to make her a cup of tea on her arrival back in Britain.

“There will probably be a couple of days peace and quiet somewhere else, and then back here," he told reporters in London, standing alongside Gabriella.

“I think actually we were looking at the house and it needs a bit of tidying, so there might be a bit of tidying,” he added.

'Political pawns'

Iran has been accused of detaining the British nationals to force the U.K. to settle a dispute dating to the 1970s. Iran says Britain owes it about $524 million because of a canceled order for British tanks.

Britain had said it was willing to pay the debt and Truss confirmed in a statement that the debt had been settled “in parallel” with the release of the detainees.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Ashoori are dual U.K.-Iranian citizens who had been imprisoned on what the British government maintains were trumped-up charges while visiting family in Iran.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years, accused of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government. She was then sentenced to additional time last year on a charge of promoting “propaganda against the system” for having participated in a protest outside the Iranian Embassy in London in 2009.

Ashoori was sentenced to 10 years in prison, accused of spying for Israel, a charge his family called “bogus.”

Truss said in her statement that she had the “deepest admiration for the resolve, courage and determination,” the pair had shown.

She added that Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian American environmental activist, had also been released from prison on furlough. Tahbaz, 66, also holds British citizenship. He was among a group of wildlife conservationists in Iran who were accused of espionage after using cameras to track endangered species. He was detained in 2018.

Several more U.S. citizens are still being detained

Human rights groups say the British, U.S. and other Western nationals imprisoned in Iran are being held on baseless charges and that Tehran uses detained foreigners as bargaining chips and to extract ransom payments.

Antonio Zappulla, chief executive of the Thomson Reuters Foundation where Zaghari-Ratcliffe was previously employed, said that staff were “overjoyed” at news of her release.

“An innocent victim of an international dispute, Nazanin has been one of many used as political pawns. Her treatment has been utterly inhumane,” he said in a statement.

A representative for the Iranian mission to the United Nations said last year that the Iranian government “categorically rejects” allegations that the pair and others being detained by the government were “hostages.”