'I came to Iran as a friend': Australian-British academic speaks of ordeal

Kylie Moore-Gilbert's release raises hopes that other hostages in Iran will be freed

epa08841624 A handout video grab taken from a video from Iran state TV (IRIB) shows, dual British-Australian citizen Kylie Moore-Gilbert during a prisoner swap at the Mehr-Abad airport in Tehran, Iran, 25 November 2020. Media reported that Moor-Gilbert has been released in exchange with three Iranian prisoners abroad, as she was sentenced to 10 years jail in Iran.  EPA/IRIB HANDOUT BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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An Australian-British academic freed in Iran after more than two years in jail said on Thursday that her release – part of a swap for three Iranians – had ended a "long and traumatic ordeal".

After more than 800 days imprisoned on spying charges, Middle East scholar Kylie Moore-Gilbert said leaving Iran would be bittersweet despite the injustices she had endured.

"I came to Iran as a friend and with friendly intentions," she said, and praised the "warm-hearted, generous and brave" Iranians.

It's definitely a good thing for all of us that deals are being done

The first images of a freed Ms Moore-Gilbert were shown on Iranian state television late on Wednesday, sparking elation among friends and family who had campaigned hard against her 10-year sentence and adamantly protested her innocence.

"We are relieved and ecstatic," her family said. "We cannot convey the overwhelming happiness that each of us feel at this incredible news."

In footage broadcast by Iran's Iribnews from Tehran airport, Ms Moore-Gilbert was seen wearing a headscarf and a  Covid-19 face mask, accompanied by the Australian ambassador.

Seemingly aware of the camera, she removed the mask, helping to confirm her identity, before getting into a white van.

epa08828968 A handout photo made available by the Iranian revolutionary guard corps (IRGC) official website Sepahnews shows, head of Iranian revolutionary guard corps (IRGC) Hossein Salami (C) and other officials take part during inauguration ceremony of ocean going warship named after slain Guard naval commander Abdollah Roudaki in Persian gulf, southern Iran, 19 November 2020. Media reported that as tension between Iran and US is going on Iranian revolutionary guard inaugurated new heavy warship capable carrying helicopters, drones, and missiles amid ongoing tension with the US in Persian gulf.  EPA/HO HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
The head of the Iranian revolutionary guard corps (IRGC) Hossein Salami, centre, stands with other officials during inauguration ceremony of a warship. The IRGC has often led Tehran's crackdown on political dissidents and those accused, often wrongly, of being spies. Handout/EPA photo 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he had spoken to Ms Moore-Gilbert, describing her tone of voice as "very uplifting", but said she was still processing her release.

"She's an extraordinary, strong, courageous and intelligent person to be able to get through this awful ordeal," he told Channel 9.

She would receive debriefings, health and psychological support on her return to Australia, Mr Morrison said.

"It'll be quite an adjustment when she gets home."

Friends told AFP they were "over the moon" at the news and said: "Today is a very bright day."

Ms Moore-Gilbert's release came as Thailand flew three Iranian prisoners – sentenced over a bomb plot – back to Tehran, although Thai, Iranian and Australian officials refused to confirm a link to the academic's freedom.

Iran's state Iribnews, however, reported "a businessman and two [other] Iranian citizens detained abroad on the basis of false accusations were freed in exchange for a spy with dual nationality working for Israel", identifying Ms Moore-Gilbert by name.

The outlet showed video of three men – one of them in a wheelchair – draped in Iranian flags and being met by officials, including Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi.

Ms Moore-Gilbert's arrest was confirmed by Iran in September 2019.

But it is believed that the lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Melbourne was arrested at Tehran airport by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a year earlier, after attending an academic conference in the city of Qom, in central Iran.

According to letters smuggled out of prison, Ms Moore-Gilbert, who is in her early 30s, rejected Tehran's offer to work as a spy.

She wrote that the first 10 months she spent in a wing of Tehran's notorious Evin prison run by the IRGC had "gravely damaged" her mental health.

"I am not a spy. I have never been a spy and I have no interest to work for a spying organisation in any country."

She said she had been shown two different decisions to her appeal – one for a 13-month sentence, another confirming the original sentence of 10 years.

"I am still denied phone calls and visitations, and I am afraid that my mental and emotional state may further deteriorate if I remain in this extremely restrictive detention ward," she wrote.

She was eventually transferred to the general women's section of Evin prison, where British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was held until being granted temporary release because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe's husband said she was "really happy" when he told her about Ms Moore-Gilbert's release.

"I don't know what it means for us, it's definitely a good thing for Kylie and it's definitely a good thing for all of us that deals are being done," Richard Ratcliffe said.

Watch as freed Iran prisoner lands in Australia

Watch as freed Iran prisoner lands in Australia

Throughout Ms Moore-Gilbert's internment, friends and family had become increasingly critical of what they said was Australia's diplomatic approach.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the release came after "determined work" and described the case as "complex and sensitive".

Iran, which has tense relations with the West, has over the years arrested several foreign citizens, most often on accusations of spying.

They include French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah, who was detained in June 2019.

Two other Australians, travel bloggers Jolie King and Mark Firkin, were released in October 2019, in another apparent swap.

The US State Department welcomed Ms Moore-Gilbert's release but said "she should never have been imprisoned".

"The Iranian regime continues to engage in hostage diplomacy, and we caution all Americans from travelling to Iran as it seeks to gain further leverage," a representative said.