BANGKOK (AP) – Thailand said on Thursday it had transported back to Tehran for three participants in a bombing that broke down in 2012 after Iran released an Australian academician who had been jailed for more than two years for espionage charges.
While Thai officials refused to call it an exchange, and Iran called the men “economic activists,” the deal freed Academician Kylie Moore-Gilbert and saw three men tied to a broader bomb plan targeting Israeli diplomats return home to greet a hero.
The bombers wore Iranian flags on their shoulders, their faces largely covered in black baseball caps and surgical masks. There was a stark contrast to the prisoner exchanges that Iran had trumpeted in the past, in which television anchors repeated their names and broadcasters broadcast images of reuniting with their families.
The reason why Iran refused to name the liberated remains unclear. However, Tehran has long denied standing behind the bombing plan and is likely to use the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden to ease the U.S. sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump. Israeli officials refused to comment immediately on the release.
In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was “excited and relieved” that Moore-Gilbert, 33, had been released, but added that it would take time to process his “horrible” ordeals.
“His voice was very uplifting, especially given what he was going through,” Morrison told Network Nine in Australia.
Chatchom Akapin, Thailand’s deputy attorney general, told the Associated Press that the Thai authorities had approved the transfer of the prisoners under an agreement with Iran.
“These types of transfers are not unusual,” he said. “We will transport the prisoners to other countries and at the same time return the Thai people under this type of agreement.”
An official from a Thai correctional department, who spoke anonymously because they were not allowed to talk to reporters publicly about the issue, said only two of the Iranians were sent home on Wednesday under the prison transfer agreement, while he was pardoned in September.
Under resettlement agreements, returnees are required to serve the remainder of their sentence in their home country. Thailand has such agreements with about three dozen countries. However, an Iranian state television video showing the men’s arrival suggests that a return to prison seems unlikely as officials watered them with flowers and praised God and the Prophet Muhammad.
The tail of the plane from Bangkok to Iran was linked to an Australian private carrier called Skytraders, which describes itself as “the government’s main provider of air services”. An employee of the company refused to comment when the AP reached it.
The plane flew twice a week from Bangkok to Tehran and then to Doha, Qatar, according to flight data received by the AP. Authorities declined to say where Moore-Gilbert is on Thursday, although in a statement he thanked the Australian government and diplomats for securing the release and supporters campaigning for his freedom.
Despite his Calvary, Moore-Gilbert said he “has only respect, love and admiration for the great nation of Iran and its warm-hearted, generous and courageous people”.
On the question of the swap, the Australian prime minister said he “does not go into these details, one way or another.” However, Morrison said he was able to assure the Australians that nothing had been done to violate their safety and that no prisoners had been released in Australia.
Thai police discovered the three Iranian plots in 2012 when a random explosion blew up their rented Bangkok villa. At the time, Iran was suspected of two bombing attempts in India and the former Soviet republic of Georgia, targeting Israeli diplomats amid heightened tensions around its nuclear program. His own nuclear scientists, meanwhile, have been killed in attacks that Israel has long suspected of carrying out.
Police say one Iranian, Saeid Moradi, threw grenades at officers, who attacked back and exploded, cutting off his leg. Moradi was sentenced to life for attempted police murder. Another man, Mohammad Kharzei, was sentenced to 15 years in possession of explosives. The sentence of the third man, Masoud Sedaghatzadeh, was not known immediately.
Kharzei was the Iranian who was allegedly pardoned last September, a Thai correctional official said.
Their release, along with Moore-Gilbert, represents another case in which Iran arrested a Western man on widely criticized charges of espionage. Activists and UN investigators believe Iran is systematically using its prison sentence for money or influence in negotiations with the West. Tehran denies it, although there have been similar exchanges in the past.
Moore-Gilbert was a lecturer in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Melbourne when he was admitted to Tehran airport when he tried to leave the country after attending a 2018 scientific conference. He was sent to Tehran’s infamous Evin prison, convicted of espionage and sentenced to 10 years. He vehemently denied the allegations and maintained his innocence.
In a letter to Morrison, Moore-Gilbert wrote that he had been imprisoned for “extorting” the Australian government.
His arrest strained relations between Iran and the West at a time of already escalating tensions that erupted earlier this year after the assassination of an Iranian chief general in Baghdad and retaliatory Iranian strikes against a U.S. military base.
There was international pressure on Iran to release Moore-Gilbert. He went on hunger strike repeatedly and his health deteriorated during long periods in solitary confinement. He also claimed that he had suffered a “serious violation” of Iran’s rights, including psychological torture.
Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand. Isabel DeBre and Jon Gambrell, Dubai, UAE and Amir Vahdat, Tehran, Iran contributed to the report.