The family of a British man being flown out of Iran on Monday in a $6bn (£4.8bn) prisoner swap have spoken of their joy at his release after more than five years in captivity.
Wildlife conservationist Morad Tahbaz, 66, who also holds Iranian citizenship, was arrested during a crackdown on environmental activists in January 2018.
He was sentenced to 10 years in prison on vague charges of spying for the US and undermining Iran’s security.
Mr Tahbaz, who has cancer, was released on furlough in March last year but was then taken back into custody at the notorious Evin prison in Tehran on the same day as charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released back to the UK.
His family posted an emotional statement to X, formerly known as Twitter, about his “surreal” release, saying: “We are overjoyed and relieved to finally have Morad and [his wife] Vida free and on their way back home after six years.
“We are grateful to President Biden and his administration for making the difficult but necessary decision to prioritise the lives of American citizens over politics. Thank you for leading with courage and compassion.”
They added: “At this time, we are focused on the reunion of our family, the physical and mental health of Morad and Vida, and the path to recovery of these lost years.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was “extremely pleased” that Mr Tahbaz’s “terrible ordeal” was over.
The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “By seeking to use foreign nationals as bargaining chips, the regime’s leaders are fatally undermining Iran’s credibility on the world stage. They must stop using foreign nationals for political bargaining.
“In terms of the UK’s involvement, we weren’t a part of the negotiations between the US and Iran.”
Mr Tahbaz was allowed medical care on another temporary furlough with his family in Tehran last July on the condition that he wore an ankle bracelet.
But his release finally came on Monday after a Doha-brokered deal between the United States and Iran unfroze $6bn of Tehran’s funds.
Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband said it was “very hard” to see Mr Tahbaz “left behind” in 2022 and that his family would be feeling “a mixture of trepidation and real hope and fear” before his plane took off.
Richard Ratcliffe told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme: “When you go through that experience, you certainly believe anything bad could happen at the last minute.”
Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s chief executive, slammed the government for failing to get his release alongside Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
He said: “This is a huge relief after what’s been a terrible ordeal for Morad, who should never have been jailed in the first place.
“We’re delighted for Morad and his family who’ve campaigned tirelessly for his release, often battling with UK officials who’ve never treated Morad’s plight with anywhere near the urgency and seriousness it merited.
“When Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori were released last year, Morad was grievously let down by the UK government, including with hollow promises from Liz Truss when she was Foreign Secretary.
“In all these years, we hoped the UK would have significantly raised its game when it was confronted by the arbitrary detention of UK nationals overseas – yet almost nothing seems to have been learnt.”
Mehran Raoof, a British-Iranian national and a labour rights activist, is still being detained in Tehran’s Evin prison after Revolutionary Guards agents arrested him in October 2020.
Mr Deshmukh added: “UK officials are still keeping families at arm’s length with stock answers and uninformative meetings, being too passive when they should be demanding consular visits and the ability to attend trial hearings, and they’re not working collaboratively with partner countries anywhere near as much as they should.
“The government needs to drastically upgrade its procedures to prevent more unnecessary heartbreak and suffering in cases like Morad’s, and it now needs to urgently seek the release of Mehran Raoof, who’s been arbitrarily jailed in Iran for nearly three years, and Alaa Abd el-Fattah, who’s similarly been arbitrarily imprisoned in Egypt for almost four years.”
The Foreign Office has been approached for comment.
According to reports, Mr Tahbaz had been using camera traps to monitor endangered species, including the Persian leopard and Asiatic cheetah when he was arrested.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps claimed he and fellow environmentalists were committing espionage by photographing Iranian military installations.
Iranian Foreign Ministry, spokesman Nasser Kanaani, said: “Fortunately Iran’s frozen assets in South Korea were released and. God willing, today the assets will start to be fully controlled by the government and the nation.
“On the subject of the prisoner swap, it will happen today and five prisoners, citizens of the Islamic Republic, will be released from the prisons in the US.
“Five imprisoned citizens who were in Iran will be given to the US side.”
He said two of the Iranian prisoners will stay in the US.
The transfer of Iran’s funds under the agreement has drawn criticism from US Republicans who say President Biden is in effect paying a ransom for US citizens.