Well-known Kiwis detained in Iran have been released

A well-known New Zealand couple who were believed to have been detained in Iran for several months have left the country and are “unharmed”, the Foreign Office has said.

Travel bloggers Christopher ‘Topher’ Richwhite and Bridget Thackwray have reportedly been detained in the conservative Islamic Republic since entering the country in July.

1News understands the New Zealand government had attempted to negotiate the couple’s safe release, but there were no public updates on their wellbeing until this morning.

“The New Zealanders to whom we provided consular assistance in Iran have now left the country and are safe. For confidentiality reasons, we cannot comment further,” the MFAT said.

Although the reason for their detention has not been confirmed, it appears that the couple have been accused of using photographic equipment in a restricted or military area.

Iran has a well-documented recent history of detaining foreign nationals, and the detention of Richwhite and Thackwray came at a time of significant social unrest in the conservative country.

After raising the couple’s case with the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), 1News and other outlets have agreed to delay reporting on the couple’s whereabouts until now.

Yesterday Australian Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who was previously imprisoned in Iran, tweeted that the couple’s detention has brought them into the public domain.

Disappearance

Richwhite and Thackwray were halfway through a global expedition, named Expedition Earth, when they disappeared from their usual online platforms.

Richwhite is the son of high profile investment banker David Richwhite. Thackwray is the founder of former online fashion platform, Fashbae. The couple married in New Zealand in June and left soon after to continue their world tour.

The couple had driven around the world in a distinctive Jeep, documenting their journeys via social media with the stated intention of raising awareness of environmental issues.

Unusually, Richwhite and Thackwray abruptly stopped posting online shortly after crossing the Gürbulak-Bazargan border between Turkey and Iran.

It is causing concern among their 300,000 Instagram followers. Some have left dozens of comments requesting information about their whereabouts.

So far, the MFAT has made no official comment. The couple’s family members declined to speak to the media.

Although the Prime Minister was made aware of the situation, Jacinda Ardern did not respond to questions about the couple’s detention when approached earlier by 1News.

Richwhite and Thackwray’s experience draws parallels to that of Australian travel bloggers Mark Firkin and Jolie King, who were arrested by Iranian authorities in 2019 after allegedly flying a drone near military installations. Firkin and King were released in a prisoner exchange brokered by the Australian government after several months in detention.

Christopher 'Topher' Richwhite and Bridget Thackwray

Prior to their disappearance, Richwhite and Thackwray’s last social media posts suggested they were having trouble with Iranian authorities.

After crossing the border from Turkey, Richwhite recorded a video in which he told Expedition Earth Instagram followers that they had been pushed aside by government officials.

“We just came out of a 45 minute meeting with the head of customs in the next town. It was a very strange experience,” he said.

“We were told in advance that we weren’t allowed to smile, cross our legs or move around too much, which was quite difficult considering how nervous we were.

“The meeting was about who we are and why we are coming to Iran with an approved vehicle.”

Iran banned the import of Western vehicles in 2017. Although some rules have been relaxed, sanctions remain on many items.

In another video recorded in Iran and posted online, Thackwray explained that she was asked to leave a meeting with the police because the authorities considered her to be dressed immodestly.

Although she was wearing a head covering, police said her shirt must have extended farther below her hips.

Iran strictly enforces conservative laws regarding dress, behavior and relationships and reports at the time of the couple’s wedding suggested they had been invited to marry before traveling through the Middle East.

On the Expedition Earth Instagram account, users can still find a video the couple recorded together shortly after entering Iran.

“We are in Iran. A kiss?” Thackwray asks, turning to her husband as he drives their vehicle.

“You are not allowed to kiss in Iran,” Richwhite replies.

“A honeymoon,” jokes Thackwray.

In the video, the couple then briefly kiss.

“Breaking the rules,” Thackwray jokes again, before the video ends.

1News and the “silent diplomacy” response

While they remained in custody, the families of Richwhite and Thackwray, as well as MFAT officials, felt that media publicity could put the couple at additional risk.

The ministry sought to secure their release through diplomatic channels, and after 1News contacted the Iranian Embassy in Wellington, the contact was relayed by Iranian diplomats to their New Zealand counterparts.

Iran has a well-documented recent history of detaining foreign nationals.

The Australian government made a similar request for a publicity ban when negotiating the release of Mark Firkin and Jolie King in 2019. The media agreed to delay reporting on the couple’s fate until their safe release.

But the so-called ‘silent diplomacy’ approach was questioned by another Australian citizen who was recently detained and imprisoned in Iran. Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a British-Australian dual citizen, faced espionage charges after the Iranian government accused her of spying.

Australian authorities asked the media not to report on the case as they worked to free Moore-Gilbert, and she ultimately spent more than two years imprisoned in Iran.

After her release in 2020, Moore-Gilbert told 60 Minutes that she was ‘not convinced the quiet diplomacy thing is piling up’ and that earlier publicity surrounding her detention would have led to better terms. and a shorter prison term.

“The line led by the government was that trying to find a diplomatic solution behind the scenes with Iran was the best approach to get me out and that the media would complicate things and might anger Iran,” he said. she declared.

“I had a very different view of the situation based on my own experiences inside.

“I knew it was deliberately kept out of the media against my will and for the first six weeks to the first two months I had… asked my family to speak to the media,” he said. she declared.

MFAT officials told 1News earlier this month that the families of Richwhite and Thackwray wanted to continue the low-key diplomatic approach.

Protests in Iran

Concern over the fate of Richwhite and Thackwray came at a time of significant social unrest in Iran.

Nationwide protests have been ongoing since mid-September following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for allegedly wearing the mandatory Islamic headscarf too loosely.

Amini died in police custody after being detained by Iranian vice squads.

Many Iranian women protested by removing their head coverings in public. Protesters clashed with police and called for the fall of the Islamic Republic.

Such protests are highly unusual in Iran, and authorities have responded with violence and blocking internet access. Human rights groups say several hundred people have been killed and thousands arrested.

Human rights activists in New Zealand have held numerous rallies in support of Iranian protesters, but the New Zealand government has been criticized for its response.

The MFAT issued a statement saying that the government “places great importance on human rights” and regularly expresses concern about the situation in Iran.

Today Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said New Zealanders currently in Iran should leave.

“The new advisory for Iran reiterates the existing ‘Do Not Travel’ warning and adds that due to the potential for violent civil unrest, the risk of arrest or detention and the volatile security situation in the region, the security risk in Iran is significant.”

The ACT and the Green Party have called on the government to do more.

In September, Iranian-born Green MP Golriz Ghahraman cut her hair at a public solidarity rally in support of Iranian women.

“I think New Zealanders, and especially the Iranian community, expect our government to recognize that what is happening is one of the most serious human rights violations,” he said. she stated.

ACT leader David Seymour has called on the government to expel Iran’s ambassador to New Zealand.

“It is time for our government to properly condemn what is happening to women and girls in Iran. So far, Jacinda Ardern and [Foreign Affairs Minister] Nanaia Mahuta was weak in her sentencing,” Seymour said.

It is unclear how the detention of Richwhite and Thackwray affected the MFAT’s public response to the Iranian protests and the death of Mahsa Amini.

Although New Zealand maintains diplomatic relations with Iran, tensions between the country’s conservative Islamic regime and Western countries have escalated in recent years.

The United States maintains strict sanctions against Iran in response to the Iranian regime’s nuclear program.