LONDON — After six years in Tehran separated from her family, first in prison and then under house arrest, a British-Iranian woman’s ordeal in detention in Iran is finally over.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe — arrested in Tehran’s airport in 2016 on her way home to London, and used as a diplomatic pawn, her family says — will finally be reunited with her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, and daughter, Gabriella, on Wednesday night.
Her release, and that of another British-Iranian citizen, Anoosheh Ashoori, comes after the settlement of a longstanding British debt to Iran that had roiled relations between the two countries, according to Britain’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss.
Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Mr. Ashoori, who spent years detained in the same Tehran prison, were taken to an airport on Wednesday to fly back to Britain after a stop in Oman.
A photo of Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, smiling from onboard the plane that would take her first to Oman before she boarded a second plane to England, was posted by her local member of Parliament, Tulip Siddiq.
“Nazanin is now in the air flying away from 6 years of hell in Iran,” wrote Ms. Siddiq, who had campaigned for a resolution to her case. “My heart goes out to Gabriella and Richard, as her long journey back home to them gets closer by the minute.”
The case of Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian charity worker who had been visiting family in Iran when she was arrested, drew considerable media attention in part because of the efforts by her family and her organization to publicize her case.
Richard Ratcliffe, her husband, has dedicated the past six years to public advocacy for his wife, staging a number of hunger strikes in front of the Iranian Embassy in London.
But accusations that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had mishandled her case early on, when he was serving as foreign secretary, had also raised Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s profile.
Speaking in Parliament in 2017, Mr. Johnson told lawmakers that “she was simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it,” comments that rights groups said harmed her case in Iran.
Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was not teaching journalism, was not a journalist, and was on vacation in Iran at the time of her detention, her employer has maintained. She was employed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the London-based charitable arm of the Thomson Reuters news organization.
Mr. Ashoori, 67, a British-Iranian retired engineer arrested in 2017, was also on his way to Britain on Wednesday after being released in Tehran. Miran Hassan, a spokesman for his family, said Mr. Ashoori and Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe were on the same flight.
“I just hope I will able to contain my joy and my happiness,” Sherry Izadi, Mr. Ashoori’s wife, said before she was due to meet him at the airport. “I hope I don’t have a heart attack.”
Ms. Izadi had dropped off her husband at London’s Gatwick Airport on Aug. 17, 2017, expecting to pick him up three weeks later. She had not see him for almost five years.
Ms. Truss, Britain’s foreign secretary, said the government had secured the release from prison of a third dual British-Iranian citizen, Morad Tahbaz, on furlough and was working to get him out of Iran.
The British Foreign Office said the government had settled a debt to Iran over a failed arms deal in “parallel” with the agreement for the release of Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Mr. Ashoori and Mr. Tahbaz. Mr. Tahbaz also holds American citizenship.
Britain signed the deal, worth 400 million pounds or about $522 million, with the shah of Iran before the Iranian revolution, but had not delivered the weapons by the time Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power and then chose not to do so.
Ms. Truss said in an emailed statement that she had made “resolving the continued detention of British nationals” and the payment of the debt “top priorities” since she entered office last fall, and that negotiators had been sent to Tehran to secure their release.
Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, also confirmed that Iran had received payment of the debt from Britain, but said there was “no relationship between the release of the money and the people arrested in Iran on security charges.”
“We received the money a few days ago,” he said. “The release of these two individuals was with a humanitarian view.”
The news that Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliff 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 had campaigned for her release. “Nazanin has endured unimaginable suffering,” he added.
The latest moves also came as American and European negotiators were edging toward the renewal of a pact limiting Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions on the country.
The release of Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 44, a project manager for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, came after a series of seeming breakthroughs in her case — and sudden barriers to releasing her.
Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been charged with plotting to overthrow the Iranian government and was eventually sentenced to five years in prison. Her daughter, Gabriella, 2 at the time, was with her when she was detained in 2016 and initially stayed in Iran so that she could be brought for visits by her grandparents. But Gabriella returned to London in 2019 to be with her father and to start school.
Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe endured difficult periods during her years of imprisonment in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, with time in solitary confinement and periods of illness and stress, according to her family.
Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was moved to house arrest in her family’s home in Tehran in 2020, during the coronavirus epidemic, and when she was permitted to stop wearing an ankle tag last year at the end of that sentence, freedom seemed close.
Instead, she was dragged back into court to face new charges — this time of “propaganda activities.” She was banned from travel and sentenced to another year of detention.
Her family and former colleagues denied all the shifting charges against her, accusing the Iranian government of using her as a diplomatic pawn.
Mr. Ashoori’s family had also said he was being used as a bargaining chip between Britain and Iran and called the charges against him “bogus.”
Mr. Ashoori was accused of spying for Israel, among other charges, and sentenced in 2019 to a 12-year prison sentence in the same prison in Tehran where Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was held.
Rights groups said the releases were 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 another person with British and Iranian citizenship, Mehran Raoof, who remains in Iranian custody. Many, including Antonio Zappulla, the head of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, saw the release as a rare bit of hopeful news at a troubling global moment.
“In a time when the world is in turmoil and the news has been consistently bleak, Nazanin’s freedom is a ray of light and hope,” he said. “Her reunion with her family cannot come soon enough, and we cannot wait to have her back with us.”
Megan Specia contributed reporting from Warsaw, and Emma Bubola from London.