Football fan detained in Iran for more than a year returns home to Spain

Santiago Sanchez was arrested after posting a picture of himself at the Iraqi border with the caption: 'Entry to Iran'

Santiago Sanchez celebrates with relatives and friends after arriving at Madrid-Barajas Airport. EPA
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A football fan who was detained in Iran for more than a year after walking through the country to reach the Fifa World Cup in Qatar returned home to Spain on Tuesday to scenes of celebration at the capital's main airport.

Santiago Sanchez was greeted by a large crowd after touching down at Madrid's Barajas Airport.

"It has been very long, very hard but I am here in my country," a jubilant Mr Sanchez said at the airport after an emotional reunion with family and friends.

"We are not aware of how fortunate we are to have been born here in this country," he added, referring to his homeland.

Mr Sanchez was arrested by Iranian authorities in October 2022 after posting a picture of himself on the Iraq-Iran border with the caption: "Entry to Iran".

A voice mail to his parents which was later broadcast in TV said he was in Tehran headed for the port of Bandar Abbas, in the Strait of Hormuz, from where he intended to take a boat to Qatar.

At the time, Spanish authorities confirmed he had been charged with espionage and they were seeking his release.

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani on Monday said Mr Sanchez’s release was undertaken "with regard to human mercy and legal proceedings".

He had been held at a detention centre run by the Ministry of Intelligence in the Kurdish city of Sanandaj for at least some of the time.

His detention coincided with the biggest protests in Iran's history following the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, an Iranian-Kurd who was arrested after wearing her hijab "inappropriately".

Tehran has accused the US of fomenting the protests and announced in September 2022 the arrest of nine foreign citizens from several European states including France, Italy and Poland on the alleged grounds they were linked to the demonstrations.

The release of Mr Sanchez was revealed on December 31 by Iran's embassy in Spain, which said it took place "within the framework of friendly and historical relations between the two countries and in compliance with the laws of Iran".

Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares confirmed the news on Monday, writing on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter: "Today, happiness is complete. Finally Santiago will be very soon reunited with his family and friends in Spain."

"The nightmare has ended at last," Mr Sanchez's mother Celia Cogedor said at the airport as she waited for his arrival.

She thanked Spanish authorities, particularly its ambassador to Iran, for their efforts, saying that without their help he might not have left Iran for years.

"The worst were the first months [after his disappearance] because nobody knew if he was alive or dead," Ms Cogedor said.

Iran is known to be holding at least 10 western citizens. Governments and NGOs have accused Tehran of using them as bargaining chips for the release of its own citizens.

Updated: January 02, 2024, 3:18 PM