Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 25 September 2020

Iran's Zarif withdraws Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe prisoner swap after criticism

Jeremy Hunt said there was a huge difference between the two women being held, and Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe is innocent

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has proposed a prison swap for British charity worker NazaninZaghari-Ratcliffe. REUTERS
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has proposed a prison swap for British charity worker NazaninZaghari-Ratcliffe. REUTERS

Iran has stepped back from an offer to exchange British-Iranian prisoner Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe for an Iranian woman being held in Australia.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Wednesday suggested a swap between Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is in jail in Tehran on claims of sedition, and Negar Ghodskani, an Iranian woman detained in Australia on a US extradition warrant.

But on Thursday he rescinded the offer, saying Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case could not be considered in a prisoner swap. It was a “separate case”.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt had earlier dismissed the suggestion of a prisoner swap for the British mother as a "vile" diplomatic ploy and said there was a "huge difference" between the two women.

"The woman in jail in Australia is facing due process, a proper legal procedure, and she is alleged to have committed a very serious crime," Mr Hunt said.

"Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is innocent. She has done nothing wrong.

"What is unacceptable about what Iran is doing is that they are putting innocent people in prison and using it as leverage.

"They're saying, 'We'll only release this innocent Brit if you'll do something that suits us diplomatically'."

Richard Ratcliffe, Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe's husband who has been campaigning for her release, said he was "blindsided" by the offer as he followed Mr Zarif's speech on Twitter.

He said he did not think was is the "way forward".

"It's clearly a hopeful thing that he was talking about her release explicitly," Mr Ratcliffe said.

"At the same time, linking her in a public way to a big, complicated deal that is almost impossible to do because it's been made public could easily be a displacement tactic."

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe worked for the Thomson Reuters Foundation and was arrested in 2016 while visiting relatives for the Persian New Year.

Iranian authorities accused her of plotting against the government and gave her a five-year jail sentence for sedition.

Britain has taken the unusual step of granting her diplomatic protection in a bid to free her.

Ms Ghodskani, a legal resident of Australia, was arrested in 2017 after US prosecutors said she sought US digital communications technology by presenting herself as an employee of a Malaysian company.

US prosecutors said she was sending the technology to Iranian company Fanamoj, which works in public broadcasting.

Both women have been separated from their young children while being detained.

Mr Ratcliffe has also been separated from his daughter Gabriella, who was with her mother when she was detained in Iran and has since stayed in the country with her grandparents.

The prospect of Gabriella's possible return to Britain after her fifth birthday this June is causing Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe even more anguish, he said.

Mr Ratcliffe said his wife was lifted by the British government's decision to grant her diplomatic protection in March.

But he said that "generally, her spirits are gradually sinking now".

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 he has had little success with Iran.

Updated: April 26, 2019 02:02 AM

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