26 Oct 2022

Government insists no deal done to get New Zealand influencer couple out of Iran

5:37 pm on 26 October 2022
Topher Richwhite and Bridget Thackwray in Canada. The couple have been on a trip round the world by jeep called 'Expedition Earth'.

Topher Richwhite and Bridget Thackwray in Canada. The couple had been travelling round the world by jeep on a trip called 'Expedition Earth'. Photo: Expedition Earth / Instagram

The government insists no deal was done to get a New Zealand couple out of Iran - but will not give any details about what happened, or why the two social media influencers were eventually allowed to leave.

Against official advice, Topher Richwhite and his wife Bridget Thackwray crossed the border into Iran, documenting their world travels on Instagram under the name Expedition Earth.

There are strong travel warnings against entering Iran, where the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini has sparked major protests and civil unrest.

Over the following four months their movements were restricted by Iranian authorities and they were unable to leave without assistance from the New Zealand government.

Speaking just before making a second attempt to leave for Antarctica, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern welcomed the news they had got out safely, describing it as a "great relief".

It has been a delicate balancing act for New Zealand government, responding to the protests in Iran and the administration's response, while working for the pair's release; Ardern was asked whether that had any bearing on statements made during the last few months.

"What has happened with the protests, what has happened in the lead-up to the protests, the inability of women to make choices on their own behalf based around their religious practice, or just their own liberty is wrong," she said.

"We have of course, at the same time, had a difficult set of circumstances for two New Zealanders. We've worked very hard to make sure that we put our values front and centre at the same time looking after the interests of New Zealanders on the ground."

Iranian born Green MP and the party's foreign affairs spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman questioned whether any concessions were made by New Zealand officials or ministers.

"I want to know whether or not they did enter into a negotiation with the Iranian regime or the Revolutionary Guard to keep our government silent on Iranian human rights abuses ... my hope is that now that they are out of Iran, that the government will do what other governments have done, impose sanctions, expel the ambassador and make a strong statement."

Acting Prime Minister Grant Robertson insisted no deal was done and "did not believe" New Zealand had pulled its punches on recent responses to events in Iran, because of the couple's situation.

"We condemned what happened in Iran, we condemned the death of the woman, we asked for an independent investigation, we continued what we have done for many years to say that human rights in Iran need to be improved and need to be upheld," Robertson told reporters.

Mahuta made direct plea

Minister of Foreign Affaris Nanaia Mahuta made a direct plea to her Iranian counterpart to urgently let the couple leave the country.

Mahuta said her officials had been providing support to the couple, and their families, for a number of months.

"We worked with the individuals and officials that we needed to assure that we can help them to leave."

Asked by Checkpoint if the couple were detained, Mahuta said that "their movements were restricted and monitored. They didn't have the documents to leave".

Mahuta refused to be more specific on the experience of the pair.

Nanaia Mahuta

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"Any more detail is a matter for those individuals to release. It's not often the case where we would release the private details of a particular consular case to the media.

"That's a matter for the two of them as private citizens to release that information."

Ardern also said earlier today that she could not provide many more details and would let the family and the couple speak for themselves, except to say she understood it "had been particularly difficult" for the two individuals involved.

The negotiations to get the couple out have been under way for about four months, Mahuta said.

Asked why negotiations took so long, Mahuta said it was a challenging environment in Iran due to the death of Amini, who died in custody last month after being arrested by morality police for allegedly not complying with strict rules on head coverings.

The official travel warning for New Zealanders was updated this morning to warn against visiting Iran "due to the potential for violent civil unrest, the risk of arrest or detention and the volatile security situation in the region".

Those there now were "advised to depart".

"We're not advising New Zealanders to go there and that's part of the context and environment that we've been working under," Mahuta said.

Mahuta could not specify what documentation the couple did not have to leave Iran.

The New Zealand government "worked very hard, assiduously alongside them to ensure that they had the necessary documentation to leave Iran and they have."

Mahuta said she had discussions with her foreign minister counterpart about the two Kiwis.

"I asked that in relation to the consular case that the matter be given urgency."

Asked if the New Zealanders were treated well, Mahuta said, "My understanding is, yes, they were".

Mahuta said Iran did not ask anything in return for the two leaving the country.

Mahuta was asked if New Zealand had spoken differently on Iran and the protests there due to the citizens unable to leave that country.

"We identified that an independent investigation needs to take place" into Amini's death, she said, "and we stand by that".

"We are deeply concerned about the discrimination and repressive acts against women and girls and also the freedom of the right to protest. We spoke out when we needed to."

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