Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 11 December 2019

Iran offers prisoner swap to free British mother

US refuses to consider prisoner trades for those held by Iran

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with her husband Richard and their daughter Gabriella before she was detained in Iran in 2016. EPA
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with her husband Richard and their daughter Gabriella before she was detained in Iran in 2016. EPA

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has offered a prisoner exchange to secure the release of British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Mr Zarif claimed Iran had told the US administration six months ago that it was open to a prisoner swap deal but had not received a response.

Speaking at an event in New York, he said he was willing to swap Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe for an Iranian woman held in Australia for the past three years on a US extradition request.

“I feel sorry for them and I have done my best to help,” Mr Zarif said of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family.

She has been held for more than three years in a Tehran jail for what the UK government maintains are false charges.

“But nobody talks about this lady in Australia who gave birth to a child in prison," Mr Zarif said. "I put this offering on the table publicly now: exchange them.”

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 40, a dual British-Iranian national who worked for the charitable arm of the Thomson Reuters media organisation, was detained in April 2016 after visiting her parents with her young daughter.

A high-level campaign by the British government has failed to gain her release and supporters say she is being used as a political pawn by the regime.

The Iranian woman in Australia appears to be Negar Qodsi-Kani, who lives in the country and was detained in June 2017 while pregnant for allegedly breaching US commercial laws.

Iranian officials have repeatedly raised her case as a breach of human rights.

Robert O’Brien, Donald Trump’s special envoy for hostage affairs, told the National this month that there would be “no concessions, no prisoner swaps, no pallets of cash” to secure the release of US citizens.

He also said that Mr Zarif had reneged on a promise to release Siamak Namazi, a US citizen who lived in Dubai, who was imprisoned in Iran in 2015.

Mr Trump has signalled that bringing back prisoners held around the world is a priority for his administration but has had little success with Iran.

Sources say Mr Zarif's offer could be an attempt to manipulate public opinion in the US to turn against Mr Trump’s Iran policy by raising hopes of prisoners' release.

"All these people who are in prison inside the US, on extradition requests from the US, we believe their charges are phoney,” Mr Zarif said.

“The US believes the charges against these people in Iran are phoney. Let's not discuss that. Let's have an exchange. I'm ready to do it and I have authority to do it."

The US-based Centre for Human Rights in Iran said Mr Zarif had earlier claimed that the country had an independent judiciary and Tehran could not intervene.

There was no immediate comment from Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe's family, who have been campaigning for her release.

Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, was part of a group of families who told the UN last month that previous releases had been “associated with money, prisoner exchanges, lifting of sanctions, repayment of arms debts or other concessions”.

The group included the family of Bob Levinson, a former FBI agent who has been missing since 2007 and has had no contact with his relatives.

His daughter, Sarah Moriarty, said he needed to be at the top of any list of exchanges.

"We strongly desire to see any action that will bring my father home to us after 12 years of captivity," Ms Moriarty said.

"What’s phoney is the idea that Iranian authorities don’t know where my father is. Let’s finally resolve this."

The families called for an international approach to discourage the use of illegal detention for concessions from rival governments.

“Iran’s practice of targeting dual and foreign nationals and using them for diplomatic leverage constitutes crimes of the most serious order including torture, enforced disappearances, hostage-taking and crimes against humanity," they said.

Updated: April 25, 2019 01:37 AM

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