New Zealand couple Topher Richwhite and Bridget Thackwray have been released from Iran after being detained for several months. Photo:

With the Iranian regime’s detention of foreign nationals catching out a Kiwi couple, New Zealand officials worked behind the scenes to secure their release. But should the Government be speaking out more publicly about broader human rights violations in Iran?

The release of a New Zealand couple detained in Iran following months of negotiations came after media outlets were asked not to report on their plight – raising questions about the merit of that request, as well as the Government’s wider comments on the current crackdown on protesters in Iran.

On Wednesday morning, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed Topher Richwhite and Bridget Thackwray had been allowed to leave Iran and were “safe and well” having received consular assistance from Kiwi diplomats.

The social media influencers had stopped sharing content on Instagram after entering Iran in July, leading to concerns about their wellbeing.

Newsroom was among a number of media outlets that approached the ministry to ask about the couple’s situation, and agreed not to report on their situation over concerns any publicity could prove unhelpful to efforts to secure their release.

Australian academic Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who spent more than two years in Iranian prisons after being convicted of espionage on false grounds, on Tuesday posted on social media that the couple were “missing, believed arrested in Iran”, while questioning the pressure being placed on media and their families not to go public.

“Iran has arrested more than a dozen foreigners in the past six months alone. ‘Quiet diplomacy’ never works to the detainee’s advantage in such cases,” Moore-Gilbert said, reiterating remarks after her own release which criticised the Australian government’s encouragement of a media blackout.

Moore-Gilbert told Newsroom it was possible the release of Richwhite and Thackwray was “a case of quiet diplomacy, when backed up by robust action at the highest political level, actually achieving results”.

“There is a window of time after someone is arrested but before they are formally charged to negotiate an informal deal, I believe this is what happened.”

The argument against quiet diplomacy was that it led to “shadowy, sham trials with no oversight by any external body such as an embassy”, which could in turn result in a higher sentence. Putting a public spotlight on a detainee’s case through media coverage also helped to improve their prison conditions and prevented them from having medical treatment denied, Moore-Gilbert said.

“I don’t take any moral approach to this … anything that a government can do to get its nationals out of a situation like this really should be done.”
– Ian Parmeter, Australian National University

Ian Parmeter, a Middle East specialist at the Australian National University, told Newsroom Iran’s security hardliners exercised an outsized influence when it came to the country’s approach to foreign policy, including the potential detention of foreign nationals.

“If the security agencies are opposed to something, the other organisations within the government and foreign ministry have no look-in – they can’t do anything about it.”

Parmeter said there was a growing number of people being detained in Iran, with the country’s security agencies taking a “business-like” approach in extracting concessions in exchange for their release.

In the case of Moore-Gilbert, the Australian government had negotiated with Thailand and Israel to secure the release of three Iranians jailed over a 2012 bomb plot against Israeli diplomats in Bangkok, while British-Iranian citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released from a Tehran prison only after the British government paid a £400 million debt related to an unfulfilled arms deal from the 1970s (although both governments denied a direct quid pro quo).

“I don’t take any moral approach to this … anything that a government can do to get its nationals out of a situation like this really should be done,” Parmeter said.

However, it was unclear that public pressure campaigns would prove effective in the case of people detained in Iran, given the country “doesn’t have an international reputation to lose, at least not in the West”.

The government approach to Richwhite and Thackwray’s case has some similarities with that of Red Cross worker Louisa Akavi, who was abducted in late 2013 while delivering medical supplies in Syria.

A number of media outlets around the world had agreed for years not to report on the details of Akavi’s plight due to fears any such publicity would risk her safety.

Green Party MP and Iranian-New Zealander Golriz Ghahraman has questioned the decision to negotiate with Iranian authorities behind the scenes to secure the release of a New Zealand couple. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

When the International Committee of the Red Cross broke the blackout in March 2019 with a call for the nurse’s “immediate and unconditional” release, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern criticised its decision and said the Government had wanted the story to remain out of the public eye.

“Our view was that it should remain out of the public … we’ve taken a different view, we’ve disagreed with them,” Ardern said at the time, while one senior figure told Newshub the organisation was “rolling the dice on people’s lives” (the Red Cross claimed it had obtained government support before releasing details about Akavi’s situation).

Ardern offered support for the back-channel approach taken by foreign affairs officials in the case of Richwhite and Thackwray, saying the Government and MFAT had followed “the best possible advice to prioritise the safety of these individuals”.

“The fact that they had been able to depart, I think speaks to the fact that that was the right strategy.”

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson told media the Government had not made any concessions to Iran in exchange for the couple’s release, saying: “There is no deal, there’s nothing in return.”

However, Green Party foreign affairs spokeswoman and Iranian-New Zealander Golriz Ghahraman questioned whether officials had been right to stay quiet about the situation, as well as whether the Government had refrained from condemning the Iranian regime’s current crackdown on protesters due to ongoing negotiations for the Kiwis’ release.

New Zealand human rights advocate Dr Kat Eghdamian said it was good that the couple was safe, but the more significant issue was how New Zealand would respond to the “grave human rights violations committed in Iran against Iranian people”. 

“For decades, Iranians have faced countless violations, from killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, land confiscation, denial of education — often targeting religious and ethnic minorities, like Kurds, Baha’is, Baluch, Azeris, and Afghans, and of course, to children and women.

“Human rights agencies and advocates have long called for the international community to hold the Islamic Republic of Iran accountable for its vast and grievous human rights violations – and it’s important to ask ourselves now, knowing that over the past 6 weeks alone over two hundred protestors have been killed, some of whom are children, and over 12 thousand people have been arrested and tortured, what else needs to happen for us to hold the government to account for its breaches of international human rights obligations?”

The Government has updated its travel advice for Iran, reiterating a pre-existing ‘Do Not Travel’ warning while making specific reference to “the risk of arrest or detention”.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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