Iran sends US list of names for its proposed prisoner swap

A prisoner swap could offer a breakthrough following a pair of conciliatory moves. (File/AFP)
Updated 21 October 2019

Iran sends US list of names for its proposed prisoner swap

  • Iran has relayed which Iranians should be included in the suggested swap with the United States and other Western nations
  • Iran holds several American nationals and did not detail whom it would consider freeing

TEHRAN: Iran’s foreign ministry said Monday it has sent the United States a list of names it is demanding in a proposed prisoner swap, opening a potential new channel with Washington amid recent growing tensions.

Iran did not detail the names it relayed, but Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he hoped to hear soon “good news” about the release of Iranian scientist Masoud Soleimani. US federal authorities arrested Soleimani last year on charges that he had violated trade sanctions by trying to have biological material brought to Iran. Zarif said he raised the issue last month in his visit to New York to attend the UN General Assembly, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said the Islamic Republic has relayed which Iranians should be included in the suggested swap with the United States and other Western nations. Iran holds several American nationals and did not detail whom it would consider freeing.

“We have handed over a list of names (to the United States) who must be freed,” Mousavi said, in a briefing with reporters. “We hope that these efforts, if paired with good will, would pay off soon and we would see freedom of Dr. Soleimani and other Iranians from the Americans’ captivity.”

Iran contends Soleimani and others were detained over what they called “baseless” accusations of bypassing unilateral American sanctions on Iran. It’s not clear how many other Iranians the US has detained, and there was no immediate American reaction.

Tensions between Iran and the United States have steadily escalated since President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the 2015 nuclear deal last May and re-imposed sanctions on Iran. Prosecutors in Atlanta got an indictment the following month against Soleimani, who works in stem cell research, hematology and regenerative medicine. US officials revoked his visa and arrested him in October when he landed in Chicago.

The US blames Iran for a series of mysterious oil tanker attacks this year and alleges it carried out last month’s attack on the world’s largest oil processor in Saudi Arabia, which caused oil prices to spike by the biggest percentage since the 1991 Gulf War.

Iran denies the accusations and has warned any retaliatory attack targeting it will result in an “all-out war,” as it has begun enriching uranium beyond the terms of its 2015 nuclear deal. Iran also shot down a US military surveillance drone and seized oil tankers.

A prisoner swap could offer a breakthrough following a pair of conciliatory moves.

A month ago, the US deported Iranian Negar Ghodskani who was brought to the US to face criminal conspiracy charges. She was sentenced to time served for conspiracy to illegally export restricted technology from the US to Iran.

In June, Iran released Nizar Zakka, a US permanent resident from Lebanon who advocated for internet freedom and has done work for the US government. He was sentenced to 10 years on espionage-related charges and was freed after serving less than four years.

However, in May, Iran sentenced former US Navy cook Michael R. White from Imperial Beach, California, to 10 years in prison in Iran, becoming the first American known to be imprisoned there since Trump took office.

Three other American citizens are known to be held in Iran, though Iran does not recognize their dual nationality

Iranian-American Siamak Namazi and his octogenarian father Baquer, a former representative for the UN children’s agency UNICEF who served as governor of Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province under the US-backed shah, are both serving 10-year sentences on espionage charges.

Iranian-American art dealer Karan Vafadari and his Iranian wife, Afarin Neyssari, received 27-year and 16-year prison sentences, respectively.

Chinese-American graduate student Xiyue Wang was sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly “infiltrating” the country while doing doctoral research on Iran’s Qajar dynasty.

Iranian-American Robin Shahini was released on bail in 2017 after staging a hunger strike while serving an 18-year prison sentence for “collaboration with a hostile government.” Shahini has since returned to America and is now suing Iran in US federal court.

Former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran in 2007 while on an unauthorized CIA mission, remains missing. Iran says that Levinson is not in the country and that it has no further information about him, though his family holds Tehran responsible for his disappearance.

Others held with Western ties include Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman who is serving a five-year prison sentence for allegedly planning the “soft toppling” of Iran’s government while traveling with her young daughter. Her daughter left Iran for Britain last week.


‘Terminator’ Rajapaksa storms to victory in Sri Lanka

Updated 31 min 28 sec ago

‘Terminator’ Rajapaksa storms to victory in Sri Lanka

  • Gotabaya Rajapaksa conducted a nationalist campaign with a promise of security and a vow to crush religious extremism
  • His triumph will, however, alarm Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Muslim minorities as well as activists, journalists

COLOMBO: Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who spearheaded the brutal crushing of the Tamil Tigers 10 years ago, stormed to victory Sunday in Sri Lanka’s presidential elections, seven months after Islamist extremist attacks killed 269 people.
Rajapaksa conducted a nationalist campaign with a promise of security and a vow to crush religious extremism in the Buddhist-majority country following the April 21 suicide bomb attacks blamed on a homegrown militant group.
His triumph will, however, alarm Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Muslim minorities as well as activists, journalists and possibly some in the international community following the 2005-15 presidency of his older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Mahinda, with Gotabaya effectively running the security forces, ended a 37-year civil war with Tamil separatists. His decade in power was also marked by alleged rights abuses, murky extra-judicial killings and closer ties with China.
Gotabaya, a retired lieutenant-colonel, 70, nicknamed the “Terminator” by his own family, romped to victory with 51.9 percent of the vote, results from the two-thirds of votes counted so far showed.
“I didn’t sleep all night,” said student Devni, 22, one of around 30 people who gathered outside Rajapaksa’s Colombo residence. “I am so excited, he is the president we need.”
Rajapaksa’s main rival, the moderate Sajith Premadasa of the ruling party, trailed on 42.3 percent. The 52-year-old conceded the race and congratulated Rajapaksa.
On Sunday three cabinet members resigned — including Finance Minister Mangalar Samaraweera.
The final result was expected later on Sunday with Rajapaksa due to be sworn in on Monday. Turnout was over 80 percent.
Premadasa had strong support in minority Tamil areas but a poor showing in Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese heartland, a core support base where Rajapaksa won some two-thirds of the vote.
Saturday’s poll was the first popularity test of the United National Party (UNP) government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Wickremesinghe’s administration failed to prevent the April attacks despite prior and detailed intelligence warnings from India, according a parliamentary investigation.
Premadasa also offered better security and a pledge to make a former war general, Sarath Fonseka, his national security chief, projecting himself as a victim seeking to crush terrorism.
He is the son of assassinated ex-president Ranasinghe Premadasa who fell victim to a Tamil rebel suicide bomber in May 1993.
But Gotabaya is adored by the Sinhalese majority and the powerful Buddhist clergy for how he and Mahinda ended the war in 2009, when 40,000 Tamil civilians allegedly perished at the hands of the army.
Under his brother, Gotabaya was defense secretary and effectively ran the security forces, allegedly overseeing “death squads” that bumped off rivals, journalists and others. He denies the allegations.
This makes the brothers detested and feared among many Tamils, who make up 15 percent of the population. Some in the Muslim community, who make up 10 percent, are also fearful of Gotabaya, having faced days of mob violence in the wake of the April attacks.
Under Mahinda, Sri Lanka also borrowed heavily from China for infrastructure projects and even allowed two Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo in 2014, alarming Western countries as well as India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on Sunday that India looked forward to “deepening the close and fraternal ties... and for peace, prosperity as well as security in our region.”
The projects ballooned Sri Lanka’s debts and many turned into white elephants — such as an airport in the south devoid of airlines — mired in corruption allegations.
Unlike in 2015 when there were bomb attacks and shootings, this election was relatively peaceful by the standards of Sri Lanka’s fiery politics.
The only major incident was on Saturday when gunmen fired at two vehicles in a convoy of at least 100 buses taking Muslim voters to cast ballots. Two people were injured.
According to the Election Commission the contest was, however, the worst ever for hate speech and misinformation.