Two British-Iranians jailed in Iran over alleged espionage charges have reached the Tehran airport to board a flight home after their release on Wednesday.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anousheh Ashouri, who spent 6 and 5 years, respectively, in detention in Iran, were freed after Britain settled a long-overdue debt to Iran.
A British negotiating team had been stationed in Tehran over the past several days negotiating the terms of their release after many unsuccessful attempts in the past, sources told Anadolu Agency.
According to reports, their release came after the British government agreed to pay the debt of $530 million it owed Iran for a canceled arms deal in the 1970s.
Reports had earlier indicated that their release could be tied to the British government’s refusal to clear the major debt, which torpedoed efforts in recent years to secure their release.
Earlier on Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was quoted as saying by Sky News that the £400 million debt the UK owed Iran was a "legitimate debt" that the government wants to pay.
She, however, stopped short of confirming whether the amount was paid in exchange for the duo’s release from their detention in Iran.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was first arrested in April 2016 over espionage charges at Tehran's international airport after visiting her family. She was at the time working for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Ashoori, a retired engineer, was arrested a year later on similar charges while he was visiting his family in Iran. He was sentenced to 10 years. Both of them denied the charges.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case, however, hogged headlines, leading to a diplomatic standoff between London and Tehran, even as her family and friends censured their government for not doing enough.
Her release came after her constituency lawmaker, Tulip Siddiq, on Tuesday announced that she had been given her British passport back by the Iranian authorities.
It was followed by a statement from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday that negotiations with Iran to secure her release were “going right up to the wire” but could not say more as "negotiations are underway."
Following her much-publicized arrest in 2016 on charges that she denied, Zaghari-Ratcliffe went through a legal trial and was subsequently sent to Tehran's Evin Prison.
She spent the next four years in the detention facility in north Tehran until her transfer to house arrest in March 2020 amidst the coronavirus crisis in Iran.
In April last year, weeks after her house arrest orders were lifted, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to a one-year jail term on new charges by a court in Tehran.
Her lawyer Hojjat Kermani told local media then that Zaghari had been banned from leaving the country for one year, charged with "propaganda activities against the Islamic Republic".
In November last year, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in a telephone conversation with his British counterpart discussed Iran’s debt in the UK and the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
It came after her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, went on a hunger strike outside the British Foreign Office in a bid to persuade London to pay Iran’s debt and bring his wife back from her detention.