Iran holds four ar­rested Aus­tralians ‘hostage’

The Australian - - FRONT PAGE - BEN PACK­HAM FOR­EIGN AF­FAIRS AND DE­FENCE COR­RE­SPON­DENT

Four Aus­tralians have been seized in Iran since late last year, with three of the hostages cur­rently be­ing held in a no­to­ri­ous Tehran prison

A young cou­ple — an Aus­tralian man and his Aus­tralian-Bri­tish part­ner — were trav­el­ling the world, blog­ging about their ad­ven­tures, when they were re­port­edly seized by Iran about 10 weeks ago.

A fe­male aca­demic who holds Aus­tralian and Bri­tish citizenshi­p is also be­ing de­tained and has re­port­edly been sen­tenced to 10 years in prison for an un­spec­i­fied of­fence.

The Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment has been qui­etly try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate their re­lease in re­cent months.

An­other woman, dual Aus­tralian-Ira­nian ci­ti­zen and Mel­bourne Univer­sity de­mog­ra­pher Meimanat Hos­seini-Chavoshi, was ar­rested in Iran in De­cem­ber, charged with try­ing to “in­fil­trate” Ira­nian in­sti­tu­tions.

She has re­port­edly been re­leased on bail, but has not been al­lowed to leave Iran while the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into her case is con­ducted.

The Depart­ment of For­eign Af­fairs and Trade con­firmed on Wed­nes­day it was pro­vid­ing con­sular as­sis­tance to the fam­i­lies of three Aus­tralians, but refused to pro­vide fur­ther in­for­ma­tion.

It is un­der­stood DFAT of­fi­cials were try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate the Aus­tralians’ re­lease out­side the glare of me­dia at­ten­tion.

The Aus­tralian’s Bri­tish sta­ble­mate, The Times, knew the iden­tity of those de­tained but elected not to pub­lish the

in­for­ma­tion in its re­port. The ne­go­ti­a­tions come at a del­i­cate time — Scott Mor­ri­son an­nounced in Au­gust that Aus­tralia would join a US-led mis­sion to pro­tect ship­ping against Ira­nian at­tacks, al­lo­cat­ing a navy frigate, a P-8A Po­sei­don mar­itime sur­veil­lance air­craft and spe­cial­ist per­son­nel to the op­er­a­tion.

The Ira­nian gov­ern­ment warned at the time that Aus­tralia’s “rep­u­ta­tion and prestige” would be dam­aged by the com­mit­ment.

The de­tained Aus­tralians have been im­pris­oned in Evin jail, Tehran, where Nazanin Zaghari-Rat­cliffe, a 41-year-old Bri­tish-Ira­nian mother of one, has been held since 2016 on spy­ing charges.

The blog­ger cou­ple were in Iran as part of a trip that started in Aus­tralia three years ago, and had been doc­u­ment­ing their trav­els on YouTube and In­sta­gram.

Fol­low­ers of their so­cial me­dia ac­counts ex­pressed con­cern about their si­lence in re­cent weeks.

A source with knowl­edge of the cases said the woman had been told by the Ira­nian au­thor­i­ties that she was be­ing held as part of a plan to fa­cil­i­tate a pris­oner swap with Aus­tralia, ac­cord­ing to The Times.

Aus­tralian of­fi­cials refused to com­ment on the sug­ges­tion.

The aca­demic had stud­ied at Cam­bridge Univer­sity and worked at an Aus­tralian univer­sity.

She is re­port­edly be­ing held in soli­tary con­fine­ment and has been sen­tenced to 10 years.

Her alleged of­fence is un­known, but a decade is a com­mon sen­tence for for­eign­ers on es­pi­onage charges.

Bri­tish MP Tulip Sid­diq, who is Mrs Zaghari-Rat­cliffe’s lo­cal mem­ber, told The Times: “This ter­ri­ble news shows a clear es­ca­la­tion of Iran’s hostage diplo­macy. Soft diplo­matic re­sponses to Iran’s il­le­gal and in­hu­mane treat­ment of Bri­tish pris­on­ers have been a fail­ure.”

Of­fi­cial travel ad­vice for Iran urges Aus­tralians to “re­con­sider your need to travel” due to risks that for­eign­ers “could be ar­bi­trar­ily de­tained or ar­rested”.

When an­nounc­ing Aus­tralia’s com­mit­ment to pro­tect ship­ping in the Strait of Hor­muz, the Prime Min­is­ter crit­i­cised “desta­bil­is­ing be­hav­iour” in the re­gion, where Iran had been ha­rass­ing for­eign ships.

Mr Mor­ri­son said Aus­tralia had an “en­dur­ing in­ter­est in the se­cu­rity of global sea lanes”, and cited the na­tion’s re­liance on crude oil and re­fined oil trav­el­ling through the Strait of Hor­muz.

Tehran’s am­bas­sador to Lon­don was sum­moned on Tues­day to see UK For­eign Sec­re­tary Do­minic Raab.

Mr Raab said that oil on an Ira­nian tanker de­tained in Gi­bral­tar had been trans­ferred to Syria in breach of EU sanctions.

The su­per­tanker, seized in July with the help of the Royal Marines, was re­leased last month af­ter Iran gave writ­ten as­sur­ances that it was not bound for Syria.

IRAN IN­TER­NA­TIONAL

Meimanat Hos­seini-Chavoshi was ar­rested in De­cem­ber. Other Aus­tralians are thought to be in Evin jail, be­low

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