Australian travel-bloggers freed in Iranian prisoner swap

Reza Dehbashi returns to Tehran following a 13-month detention in Australia on accusations of circumventing US sanctions on military equipment. (AFP)
Updated 06 October 2019

Australian travel-bloggers freed in Iranian prisoner swap

  • An Iranian student held in Australia for 13 months on accusations of circumventing US sanctions on military equipment has also been released and returned home

SYDNEY: An Australian travel-blogging couple detained in Iran on spying charges have been released and returned home, Canberra said on Saturday, as an Iranian student was freed in Australia and flown back to Tehran.

Perth-based Jolie King and Mark Firkin had been documenting their journey from Australia to Britain on social media for the past two years, but went silent after posting updates from Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan about three months ago.

The pair, who have tens of thousands of followers on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, were alleged to have used a drone to take pictures of “military sites and forbidden areas,” an Iranian judiciary spokesman said last month.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said they were released after “very sensitive negotiations” and had been reunited with their family in Australia.

“We are extremely happy and relieved to be safely back in Australia with those we love,” the couple said in a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry in Canberra.

“While the past few months have been very difficult, we know it has also been tough for those back home who have been worried for us.”

Hours later, state media in Tehran reported that an Iranian student held in Australia for 13 months on accusations of circumventing US sanctions on military equipment had also been released and returned home.

Reza Dehbashi, a Ph.D. student at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, had been detained on allegations of “attempting to purchase and transfer advanced American military radar equipment via Dubai to Iran,” Iranian state television said on its website.

It said Dehbashi had been working on a “skin cancer detection device” at the time of his arrest and had dismissed the charges as “a misunderstanding” and “unfair.”

The channel showed footage of what it said was Dehbashi arriving at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport and hugging a tearful woman apparently from his family.

The Australian couple sought privacy, however.

They said in their statement that intense media coverage “may not be helpful” in the negotiations for the release of a third Australian detained in Iran in an unrelated case.

Melbourne University Academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who specializes in Middle East politics with a focus on Gulf states, had been detained for “some months” before King and Firkin were arrested.

Her case also came to light last month. Moore-Gilbert is accused by Iranian authorities of “spying for another country.”

Negotiations over the fate of the university lecturer are “very long term,” Payne said.

“She has been detained for some considerable time and has faced the Iranian legal system and has been convicted and sentenced,” the minister said.

“We don’t accept the charges on which she was convicted and we would seek to have her returned to Australia,” Payne added, declining to comment further on the case.

Payne has maintained the cases of those detained were not related to diplomatic tensions.

Australia said in August it would join a US-led naval coalition to escort commercial ships in the Gulf, after a spate of attacks blamed on Iran but that Tehran denied.

However, that announcement is believed to have come after the arrests.

News of the release of the King and Firkin comes just weeks after an Iranian woman arrested in Australia and sentenced in the US was returned home.

Negar Ghodskani was sentenced last month in Minneapolis to 27 months in prison for violating sanctions against Tehran, but was released following time served in custody in Australia and the US.

After her extradition to the US, she confessed to participation in a conspiracy to illegally export technology to Iran in breach of sanctions, according to the US Justice Department.

She was pregnant when she was arrested in 2017 in Australia where she was a legal resident. She gave birth while in Australian custody and her son was sent to Iran to live with his father.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in April floated a potential prisoner swap with a British-Iranian mother being held in Tehran.

He suggested exchanging Ghodskani for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, in jail in Tehran for alleged sedition.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe has also been separated from her daughter while in custody.


Abbas poll decree lifts hopes of Palestinian unity

Updated 54 min 39 sec ago

Abbas poll decree lifts hopes of Palestinian unity

  • First elections in 15 years “will usher in badly needed democracy”
  • The PA will hold legislative elections on May 22 and a presidential vote on July 31

AMMAN: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s announcement of the first parliamentary and presidential elections in 15 years has raised hopes of an end to longstanding divisions, but skeptics doubt it will bring about serious change.
According to decrees issued by the presidential office on Friday, the Palestinian Authority, which has limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, will hold legislative elections on May 22 and a presidential vote on July 31.
Hanna Naser, head of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, told a packed press conference a day earlier that the decrees will usher in a badly needed democratic process.
Naser said the elections will be transparent and will deliver a functioning legislative council, adding: “After 15 years without a legislative body, it is important to have accountability through a council elected by the people.”
Jibril Rajoub, secretary of the Fatah movement and a key force behind the election deal, said on Palestine TV that the decrees are a major breakthrough and reflect a Palestinian commitment to democratic principles.
Rajoub said that the elections commission will be responsible for all aspects of the poll, and that a meeting of all Palestinian factions next week in Cairo will help resolve any remaining issues.
Hussein Sheikh, minister of civil affairs and member of the Fatah Central Committee, tweeted that the presidential decrees are “an important step to strengthen democracy and partnership in a unified political regime that ensures the end of the split and will create a unified vision for a cooperative effort aimed at ending the occupation and accomplishing freedom and liberty for our people.”
Hamas welcomed the decrees, which include a commitment by all participants that the PLO represents Palestinians, and is responsible for foreign affairs and negotiations.
The decrees stipulate elections for a 132-member legislative council that will include Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza on a full proportional basis.
Presidential elections will follow in July and the Palestine National Council will hold elections wherever possible for candidates in different locations. All lists must have a woman as the third and fourth candidates on the list, with at least 26 percent of the next council to be female.
However, Ghassan Khatib, a lecturer at Bir Zeit University and a former minister, told Arab News that while he strongly supports the elections, he is worried about the quality of the poll.
“I am concerned that the elections will reflect the wishes of the political elite since the lists will be national and will be made up by political leaders who might not give enough attention to local communities and their needs,” he said.
Khatib, who founded the Jerusalem Center for Communication Studies, said that polls show Fatah could win the coming elections if it can present a unified list.
Hani Masri, director of the Masarat think tank, said that holding elections before national reconciliation is complete is a “formula for trouble.”
“Issuing presidential decrees for elections before reconciliation is doing things in reverse order,” he said. “To have elections, the land mines must be removed. If we don’t address some of these problems, we are inviting trouble,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
One suggestion to overcome this issue has been that the two main parties, Fatah and Hamas, agree on a joint list and a single nominee for president.
Marwan Muasher, vice president of Carnegie Endowment for International Studies, told Arab News that national unity is a necessary first step.
“National elections serve to renew Palestinian legitimacy, which has been significantly affected,” he said.
Palestinians are also unsure if Israel will allow East Jerusalem residents to take part in the elections. Under the Oslo accords, Jerusalem residents can vote at local post offices.