Australian travel-bloggers freed in Iranian prisoner swap

Reza Dehbashi returns to Tehran following a 13-month detention in Australia on accusations of circumventing US sanctions on military equipment. (AFP)
Updated 06 October 2019

Australian travel-bloggers freed in Iranian prisoner swap

  • An Iranian student held in Australia for 13 months on accusations of circumventing US sanctions on military equipment has also been released and returned home

SYDNEY: An Australian travel-blogging couple detained in Iran on spying charges have been released and returned home, Canberra said on Saturday, as an Iranian student was freed in Australia and flown back to Tehran.

Perth-based Jolie King and Mark Firkin had been documenting their journey from Australia to Britain on social media for the past two years, but went silent after posting updates from Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan about three months ago.

The pair, who have tens of thousands of followers on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, were alleged to have used a drone to take pictures of “military sites and forbidden areas,” an Iranian judiciary spokesman said last month.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said they were released after “very sensitive negotiations” and had been reunited with their family in Australia.

“We are extremely happy and relieved to be safely back in Australia with those we love,” the couple said in a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry in Canberra.

“While the past few months have been very difficult, we know it has also been tough for those back home who have been worried for us.”

Hours later, state media in Tehran reported that an Iranian student held in Australia for 13 months on accusations of circumventing US sanctions on military equipment had also been released and returned home.

Reza Dehbashi, a Ph.D. student at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, had been detained on allegations of “attempting to purchase and transfer advanced American military radar equipment via Dubai to Iran,” Iranian state television said on its website.

It said Dehbashi had been working on a “skin cancer detection device” at the time of his arrest and had dismissed the charges as “a misunderstanding” and “unfair.”

The channel showed footage of what it said was Dehbashi arriving at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport and hugging a tearful woman apparently from his family.

The Australian couple sought privacy, however.

They said in their statement that intense media coverage “may not be helpful” in the negotiations for the release of a third Australian detained in Iran in an unrelated case.

Melbourne University Academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who specializes in Middle East politics with a focus on Gulf states, had been detained for “some months” before King and Firkin were arrested.

Her case also came to light last month. Moore-Gilbert is accused by Iranian authorities of “spying for another country.”

Negotiations over the fate of the university lecturer are “very long term,” Payne said.

“She has been detained for some considerable time and has faced the Iranian legal system and has been convicted and sentenced,” the minister said.

“We don’t accept the charges on which she was convicted and we would seek to have her returned to Australia,” Payne added, declining to comment further on the case.

Payne has maintained the cases of those detained were not related to diplomatic tensions.

Australia said in August it would join a US-led naval coalition to escort commercial ships in the Gulf, after a spate of attacks blamed on Iran but that Tehran denied.

However, that announcement is believed to have come after the arrests.

News of the release of the King and Firkin comes just weeks after an Iranian woman arrested in Australia and sentenced in the US was returned home.

Negar Ghodskani was sentenced last month in Minneapolis to 27 months in prison for violating sanctions against Tehran, but was released following time served in custody in Australia and the US.

After her extradition to the US, she confessed to participation in a conspiracy to illegally export technology to Iran in breach of sanctions, according to the US Justice Department.

She was pregnant when she was arrested in 2017 in Australia where she was a legal resident. She gave birth while in Australian custody and her son was sent to Iran to live with his father.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in April floated a potential prisoner swap with a British-Iranian mother being held in Tehran.

He suggested exchanging Ghodskani for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, in jail in Tehran for alleged sedition.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe has also been separated from her daughter while in custody.


Israel parliament moves for third election as talks falter

Updated 11 December 2019

Israel parliament moves for third election as talks falter

  • On Wednesday morning the Israeli parliament passed 50-0 a preliminary reading of a bill immediately dissolving parliament and setting a new election for March 2
  • New elections would add to the political challenges facing Benjamin Netanyahu
JERUSALEM: Israel’s parliament began rushing through a bill on Wednesday to call a third general election within a year as talks between embattled premier Benjamin Netanyahu and his centrist rival broke down ahead of a midnight deadline.
A deal to avert a new election must be reached before 11:59 p.m. (2159 GMT), following a deadlocked vote in September.
But Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz, both of whom have repeatedly failed to build a governing majority in the Knesset, or parliament, have spent days trading blame for failing coalition talks.
On Wednesday morning the Israeli parliament passed 50-0 a preliminary reading of a bill immediately dissolving parliament and setting a new election for March 2.
It must face three more plenary readings and votes during the day before being passed.
New elections would add to the political challenges facing Netanyahu — Israel’s longest serving premier, now governing in a caretaker capacity — at a time when, weakened by corruption charges, he must fend off internal challengers in his right-wing Likud party.
Netanyahu and Gantz, a former armed forces chief who heads the centrist Blue and White party, had been discussing a potential unity government, but disagreed on who should lead it.
Last month, when Netanyahu was indicted on corruption charges, Gantz called on him to step down.
On Tuesday night Netanyahu called on Gantz to stop “spinning.”
“After 80 days, it’s time that for one day, for the citizens of Israel, we sit and have a serious discussion about forming a broad unity government. It’s not too late,” he said on social media.
Gantz said his party was making “efforts to find a way to form a government without us giving up the fundamental principles that brought us into politics.”
If confirmed, it would be the first time Israel’s weary electorate has been asked to go to the polls for a third time within 12 months.
The parties of Netanyahu and Gantz were nearly deadlocked in September’s election, following a similarly inconclusive poll in April.
Israel’s proportional system is reliant on coalition building, and both parties fell well short of the 61 seats needed to command a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
Both were then given 28-day periods to try and forge a workable coalition but failed, forcing President Reuven Rivlin to turn to parliament with his deadline for Wednesday.
New elections are deeply unpopular with the Israeli public, which has expressed mounting anger and frustration with the entire political class.
Both parties had been trying to convince Avigdor Lieberman, a crucial kingmaker, to join their blocs.
But the former nightclub bouncer, whose secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party holds the balance of power, has refused.
Kann Radio reported Tuesday that Netanyahu had abandoned hopes of earning Lieberman’s endorsement.
Lieberman pointed out that Likud and Blue and White wouldn’t need his support if they could agree to work together.
“If during the next 24 hours a government is not formed it will be solely because the leaders of the two big parties — Likud and Blue and White — were not willing to set aside their egos,” he said on Facebook Tuesday.
“All the rest is lies and excuses.”
Netanyahu was indicted last month for bribery, breach of trust and fraud relating to three separate corruption cases.
He strongly denies the allegations and accuses the media, police and prosecution of a witch-hunt.
No date has yet been set for the beginning of the proceedings and, under Israeli law, Netanyahu can remain in office despite an indictment.
He also faces a potential challenge from within his own Likud party.
To boost his support, Netanyahu has pushed his plan to annex a strategic part of the occupied West Bank, as well as signing a defense treaty with the United States.
He is a close ally of US President Donald Trump, who has taken a number of controversial steps in support of Netanyahu’s agenda.
Blue and White, meanwhile, pledged Monday to run with only one leader in the next election — Gantz.
Previously Yair Lapid, second in command in the coalition, was meant to alternate the premiership, but on Monday Lapid said: “We’ll all get behind Benny Gantz, our candidate for prime minister.”
Despite Netanyahu’s indictment, polls suggest that a third round of elections could still be neck and neck — prompting some Israelis to speculate about yet another electoral stalemate.
A commentary writer for the Israel Hayom newspaper suggested that “a fourth election is even now visible on the horizon sometime in early September 2020.”