A dual British-US national temporarily released from prison in Iran last week as part of a deal between Tehran and the UK was taken back into custody just two days later, his lawyer has said.
Iranian prison officials let 66-year-old environmentalist Morad Tahbaz leave jail on a furlough last Wednesday, the same day as two high-profile British citizens who had been detained in Iran for more than five years were freed and flown home to Britain.
The UK said it secured Mr Tahbaz’s furlough, along with the release and return of charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and retired civil engineer Anoosheh Ashoori, after settling a long-standing debt to Iran that had fuelled tensions between the countries for decades.
But barely two days after Mr Tahbaz left jail and headed to his family’s home in Tehran, Iranian security forces forced him to return to Evin Prison, his Tehran-based lawyer said.
Hojjat Kermani said: “Unfortunately, we have no idea if or when he is going to be released. He is back in Evin for the time being.”
Iranian officials and state-run media did not acknowledge his return to prison. Iran’s mission to the United Nations also did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did officials in Iran’s judiciary office.
The US State Department said it is aware of reports that Mr Tahbaz had been returned to prison, allegedly to be fitted with an ankle tag.
However, Mr Tahbaz’s lawyer said he “was not informed about any ankle tag” and two days later he remains behind bars without any update.
“Iran made a commitment to the UK to furlough Morad Tahbaz,” the State Department said. “We are not a party to this arrangement, but would join the UK in considering anything short of Morad’s immediate furlough a violation of Iran’s commitment.
“We are urgently consulting with the UK on appropriate responses.”
Iranian security forces arrested Mr Tahbaz in January 2018 as part of a wide crackdown targeting environmental activists in the Islamic Republic.
A prominent conservationist and board member of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation that seeks to protect endangered species, Mr Tahbaz was sentenced to 10 years in prison with his colleagues on vague charges of spying for America and undermining Iran’s security.
United Nations human rights experts have pressed for Mr Tahbaz’s release, decrying his detention as arbitrary and expressing concern over his “life-threatening” health problems and exposure to Covid-19 in his overcrowded jail cell.
Mr Tahbaz’s family and international rights groups reject the charges against him, accusing the Iranian government of using the dual national as a diplomatic pawn in its negotiations for money and influence with the West – something Tehran denies.
His return to prison comes as world powers try to revive the agreement of 2015 that imposed limits on Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for easing sanctions.
Earlier this month, after almost a year of painstaking talks, negotiators in Vienna put their work on “pause”.
They had nearly reached an agreement until Russia demanded that its trade with Iran be exempted from Western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine, threatening to derail the process.
“We are close to a possible deal, but we’re not there yet,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week.
“We continue to work night and day to secure the release of our wrongfully detained citizens, and that includes US-UK citizen Morad Tahbaz.”