Israel’s former ambassador to Thailand fumed over the release of three Iranians arrested over a 2012 bomb plot in Bangkok targeting Israeli diplomats, in what was widely seen to be an exchange after Iran freed an Australian-British lecturer imprisoned for alleged spying.
Thailand’s corrections department said Thursday that two of the men — Masoud Sedaghatzadeh and Saeid Moradi — were transferred as prisoners while the third, Mohammad Khazaei, was granted a royal pardon in August.
Thai officials have not explicitly linked the transfer with the release of Middle East scholar Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who returned to Australia after two years in detention in Iran on espionage charges.
But Iranian state TV said Wednesday that Moore-Gilbert was swapped for three Iranians.
“I don’t know anything about this deal beyond what was published. Of course it saddens me to see the pictures as [the Iranians] celebrate instead of rotting in prison, if they haven’t already been executed,” Itzhak Shoham, the ex-ambassador, told Channel 12 news.
Shoham said “my only consolation” is that former Quds Force chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, whose Quds Force was accused of orchestrating the plot, was killed this January in a US drone strike.
As they returned home, the bombers wore Iranian flags draped over their shoulders, their faces largely obscured by black baseball caps and surgical masks. It was a sharp contrast to other prisoner exchanges Iran has trumpeted in the past, in which television anchors repeatedly said their names and broadcasters aired images of them reuniting with their families.
The reason for Iran’s refusal to name those freed remains unclear. However, Tehran has long denied being behind the bomb plot and likely hopes to leverage the incoming administration of US President-elect Joe Biden to ease American sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump. Israeli officials declined to immediately comment on the release.
In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was “thrilled and relieved” that Moore-Gilbert, 33, had been released but added that it would take time for her to process her “horrible” ordeal.
“The tone of her voice was very uplifting, particularly given what she has been through,” Morrison told Australia’s Network Nine.
Asked about the swap, Australia’s prime minister said he “won’t go into those details, or confirm them one way or the other.” However, Morrison said he could assure Australians there had been nothing done to prejudice their safety and no prisoners were released in Australia.
Thai police discovered the three Iranians’ plot in 2012 when an accidental explosion blew apart their rented Bangkok villa. At the time, Iran was suspected in two bombing attempts in India and the former Soviet republic of Georgia targeting Israeli diplomats amid heightened tensions over its nuclear program. Its own nuclear scientists, meanwhile, had been killed in attacks long suspected to have been carried out by Israel.
Expert witnesses told the court that quantities of C4 high explosives were found concealed in radios at the house, though Moradi claimed he found the bombs by chance and was trying to dispose of them when they went off.
Police say Moradi, threw a grenade at officers that bounced backed and exploded, shearing away his legs. Moradi was sentenced to life for attempting to murder a police officer.
Kharzei was the Iranian who was said to have been pardoned this past September, the Thai corrections official said.
Their release, along with Moore-Gilbert’s, represents another case in which Iran held a Westerner on widely criticized espionage charges. Activists and UN investigators believe Iran systematically leverages their imprisonment for money or influence in negotiations with the West. Tehran denies it, though there have been similar exchanges in the past.
Moore-Gilbert was a Melbourne University lecturer on Middle Eastern studies when she was picked up at the Tehran airport as she tried to leave the country after attending an academic conference in 2018. She was sent to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, convicted of spying and sentenced to 10 years. She vehemently denied the charges and maintained her innocence.
Moore-Gilbert wrote in letters to Morrison that she had been imprisoned “to extort” the Australian government.
Her detention had strained relations between Iran and the West at a time of already escalating tensions, which reached a fever pitch earlier this year following the American killing of Soleimani in Baghdad and retaliatory Iranian strikes on a US military base.
International pressure had been building on Iran to release Moore-Gilbert. She had gone on repeated hunger strikes and her health had deteriorated during long stretches in solitary confinement. She also alleged Iran subjected her to “grievous violations” of her rights, including psychological torture.