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2 Detained in Iran Are to Fly Home to U.K., Britain Says

LONDON — Two British-Iranian citizens whose detention in Iran roiled relations between the two countries were taken to an airport on Wednesday and will fly back to Britain, according to the British foreign secretary, Liz Truss.

One of those detained, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian charity worker, was arrested in 2016; the other, Anoosheh Ashoori, a British-Iranian retired engineer, was arrested in 2017. They will return to Britain on Wednesday, Ms. Truss posted on Twitter, ending yearslong ordeals.

“They will be reunited with their families later today,” Ms. Truss wrote. She added that the government had secured the release of another dual citizen of Britain and Iran, Morad Tahbaz, from prison on furlough and was working to secure his departure from Iran.

Tulip Siddiq, a British lawmaker, tweeted a picture of Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe on a plane, saying, “Nazanin is now in the air flying away from 6 years of hell in Iran.”

The experience of the dual citizens detained by the Iranian government prompted debate in Britain about the country’s responsibilities toward citizens who run into problems abroad. The families claimed that the detainees were being used as diplomatic chips in disputes between London and Tehran, including over a failed arms deal in 1976.

With reports this week that Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe had received her passport back on Tuesday, confirmation that she and Mr. Ashoori were expected to return to Britain was met with jubilation by rights advocates.

“We are incredibly relieved that Nazanin will finally be reunited with her family in the U.K. after a horrific six-year ordeal,” said Rupert Skilbeck, director of Redress, a rights organization that has been campaigning for her release. “Nazanin has endured unimaginable suffering,” he added.

The latest moves also came as American and European negotiators were edging toward a pact limiting Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting economic sanctions on the country.

The release of Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 44, a project manager for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, came after a long-running campaign of seeming breakthroughs and sudden barriers to releasing her. She was detained at Tehran’s airport in 2016 on the way back to Britain after visiting family members in Iran.

Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was charged with plotting to overthrow the Iranian government and sentenced to five years in prison. She was moved to house arrest in her family’s home in Tehran in 2020, during the coronavirus epidemic.

Freedom appeared close last year after that sentence came to an end and she was permitted to stop wearing an ankle tag, but she was instead held on new charges of “propaganda activities,” banned from travel and sentenced to another year of detention.

Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, has denied all the shifting charges against her, accusing the Iranian government of using her as a diplomatic pawn.

Mr. Ashoori was also taken to the airport, said Miran Hassan, a spokesman for Mr. Ashoori’s family, but he added that he would not say Mr. Ashoori had been released until he was out of Iranian airspace.

Mr. Ashoori, 67, a retired engineer, was arrested in 2017 after traveling from Britain to visit his mother in Iran, a trip he had made several times, according to family members and campaigners who had been working to free him.

He was accused of spying for Israel, among other charges, and sentenced in 2019 to a 12-year prison sentence in the Evin prison in Tehran. His family has called the charges “bogus” and said that Mr. Ashoori was being used as a bargaining chip between Britain and Iran.

Rights groups welcomed the apparent releases but called them long overdue. “Nazanin and Anoosheh have unquestionably been used as political pawns by the Iranian authorities — and the Iranian authorities have acted with calculated cruelty, seeking to wring the maximum diplomatic value out of their captivity,” said Sacha Deshmukh, chief executive of Amnesty International U.K.

Mr. Deshmukh called on the British government to renew calls for the release of two other people with British and Iranian citizenship, Mr. Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof, who remain in Iranian custody. Mr. Tahbaz also holds American citizenship.

Mr. Ratcliffe has said that Iranian officials had in the past told Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe that she would be released once Britain repaid a debt of 400 million pounds, or about $522 million, to Iran related to the 1976 arms deal. Western countries, including the United States, have accused Iran of using their citizens as leverage over debts.

Megan Specia contributed reporting from Warsaw, and Emma Bubola from London.

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