DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — An Iranian employee of the British Council detained for more than three years in Iran and sentenced to a decade in prison over widely criticized espionage charges has been freed and returned to the United Kingdom, the organization said Wednesday.
The release of the woman, Aras Amiri, came as world powers, including the U.K., try to revive the tattered 2015 Iran nuclear deal in Vienna. Iranian and Gulf Arab diplomats also travel this week for meetings in China, a key signatory of the nuclear accord.
Amiri won her appeal to Iran’s Supreme Court, the British Council announced. She had been arrested during a private trip to visit family in Tehran that did not involve her work at the government-founded cultural organization, it previously said.
“We have always refuted the original charges made against Aras,” the council said in a statement. “We are very proud of her work in our London office as an arts program officer supporting a greater understanding and appreciation of Iranian culture in the U.K.”
There was no immediate word on her release from Iranian authorities. But from Tehran, Amiri’s lawyer Hojjat Kermani, confirmed her acquittal to The Associated Press, saying that Iran’s Supreme Court had determined that her earlier espionage conviction in the country’s Revolutionary Court was “against Shariah,” or Islamic law. He did not elaborate.
Kermani said she flew out of Tehran on Monday but had been free in recent months as she appealed a travel ban.
After holding Amiri for months, Iran in 2019 sentenced the British Council worker to 10 years in prison on charges of spying on cultural activities in Iran. Her arrest highlighted the dangers faced by those with Western ties in Iran after former President Donald Trump abandoned Iran’s landmark nuclear deal with world powers and piled crushing sanctions on the country.
A number of dual nationals have landed in Iranian prisons in recent years as tensions between Tehran and the West simmer. Rights groups accuse Iran of holding dual nationals as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West, something Tehran denies.
For over five years a British-Iranian worker for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, has been detained in Iran on internationally refuted spying charges.
After completing her sentence, Zaghari-Ratcliffe walked free from prison last year — only for authorities to sentence her to another year in jail on new propaganda charges. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family links her imprisonment to a long-running $530 million debt dispute owed to Tehran by London for Chieftain tanks that were never delivered.
Another British-Iranian dual national, Anoush Ashoori, was sentenced to 12 years in prison at the same time as Amiri and remains in detention. A U.N. panel has lambasted what it calls “an emerging pattern involving the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of dual nationals” in Iran.
Meanwhile, Western negotiators have raised alarm that time is running out to resuscitate Iran’s collapsed nuclear deal.
After a five-month hiatus in the talks, Iran under recently elected hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi has presented maximalist demands at the negotiating table even as it accelerates its nuclear program. Iran now enriches uranium over 60% — a short step from weapon’s grade levels — and spins far more advanced centrifuges and more of them than were ever allowed under the accord.
Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.