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Iran frees British-Australian academic in prisoners swap deal

TEHRAN, Iran: Iran has swapped jailed British-Australian academic Kylie-Moore Gilbert with three unnamed Iranians held abroad, the state media said.

Footage released by state broadcaster IRIB on Wednesday showed Moore-Gilbert, who had been imprisoned for more than two years, entering a van.

Separate images showed celebrations erupting as the freed Iranians, described as “traders” who were arrested “outside the country on false charges” entering a room packed with people. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi appeared to be among members of the welcoming party.

Moore-Gilbert, 33, a Cambridge-educated Middle East scholar, was arrested in September 2018 in the Iranian capital, Tehran and given a 10-year sentence for espionage.

Last month, she was transferred from the Qarchak women’s prison to the Evin prison in Tehran, where conditions are thought to be marginally better.

The move came after two senior judiciary officials visited Qarchak and reportedly spent hours talking to prisoners about their conditions. The women’s prison, located outside Tehran, has been blacklisted under United Nations human rights sanctions.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was “thrilled and relieved” about 33-year-old Moore-Gilbert’s release, adding that he had spoken with her ahead of her return.

In a press conference on Thursday, the PM called Moore-Gilbert’s release a “miracle.”

“I have always believed in miracles and I’m just thankful for this one as well. To see Kylie coming home,” Morrison said.

“She is an extraordinarily intelligent, strong and courageous woman. She’s an amazing Australian who has gone through an ordeal that we can only imagine,” he said.

Morrison said she spoke to Moore-Gilbert earlier on Thursday, and said she seemed to be in “quite good spirits.” But he acknowledged that it would be a “tough transition” for returning home and pledged “tremendous support” from the Australian government.

According to the IRIB, Moore-Gilbert was scouted by Israeli intelligence agencies who trained her for a mission in Iran.

She allegedly made no moves during a first trip to the country but tried to obtain “Iran’s economic and military information” during a second trip, after which she was arrested.

Moore-Gilbert, from the University of Melbourne, said after leaving Iran that she was grateful for the work that had been done to secure her release.

“Thank you also to all of you who have supported me and campaigned for my freedom,” she said, in a statement released through Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

“I came to Iran as a friend and with friendly intentions and depart Iran with those sentiments not only still intact, but strengthened.”

Foreign Minister Marise Payne stressed in a statement that Australia had “consistently rejected” the grounds on which Moore-Gilbert had been arrested and convicted. “We continue to do so,” Payne said.