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Iran releases British aid worker accused of spying

Supporters hold a photo of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. (Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images/TNS)

Iran released a British-Iranian aid worker detained in 2016 on national security charges yet barred her from leaving the country, a move that could perpetuate strained ties between the U.K. and Tehran.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s electronic ankle bracelet was removed on Sunday and she is “in good shape and happy to be released,” said her lawyer, Hojjat Kermani. She still faces another ruling on a prior charge of engaging in propaganda against the state and must appear in court on March 14.

Kermani said that will be the “last session” related to that charge, without giving details on the terms of her current release from house arrest. It raises the possibility that additional charges could be brought against her or that the final terms of her release may involve restrictions on travel. Zaghari-Ratcliffe has always strongly denied the charges against her.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab welcomed the release after years of imprisonment and house arrest, but said Iran’s “continued treatment of her is intolerable,” adding that she must be allowed to return to Britain as soon as possible.

Rights group Amnesty International criticized the court order as “yet another example of the Iranian authorities playing cruel political games with Nazanin’s life,” according to a tweet by the London-based organization.

An additional charge or a prolonged detention will further complicate relations between Iran and the U.K. which have already become heavily strained over the fate of the beleaguered 2015 nuclear accord and Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s arrest. Her detention has at times proved a major challenge for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who while serving as foreign secretary in 2017 was forced to apologize after saying she had been in the country training journalists and not on holiday at the time of her arrest.

An employee of the Thomson Reuters Foundation when she was detained, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was seized by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport in April 2016 and separated from her daughter, a toddler at the time, after visiting her family in Iran.

She was soon accused of fomenting sedition and conspiring to topple the Islamic Republic on behalf of “foreign enemies” — a charge often leveled at dual-nationals detained by Iran’s judiciary and the IRGC. Rights groups and Western governments frequently condemn Iran’s practice of arresting dual Iranian citizens on vague and very broad national security charges. She has always insisted she was on vacation with her baby daughter visiting relatives.

Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, who has led a prolific campaign for her release, has accused Iran of holding her hostage and last year said her imprisonment was related to a long-standing, multimillion-dollar legal dispute between Iran and the U.K. over a military deal signed before the 1979 revolution.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been held in Tehran’s Evin prison until March 2020 when she was put under house arrest as part of a furlough plan to reduce coronavirus infections in Iran’s jails.

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