Iranian woman in Australian jail drawn into Zaghari-Ratcliffe diplomatic dispute

Helen Davidson

An Australian resident has been drawn into an international row over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian woman detained in Iran on espionage charges, after the Iranian foreign minister suggested a prisoner swap.

Negar Ghodskani, an Iranian woman who moved to Australia with her husband in 2012, has been in a South Australian prison since June 2017 when she was arrested on a US extradition request.

Ghodskani is contesting the extradition request, which is based on her alleged involvement in obtaining and smuggling sensitive technology from the US to Iran, charges that reportedly carry sentences of about 20 years.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been detained in Iran on espionage charges. Photograph: Family Handout/PA

She has been separated from her son since his birth, shortly after she was arrested, as the prison does not have the facilities for infants to live with their mothers inside and she has twice been denied bail.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe has spent three years of a five-year sentence in a Tehran prison on espionage charges. British authorities have sought her return to the UK, and last month granted her diplomatic protection in an attempt to bolster their efforts.

On Wednesday Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, claimed he had offered to release Zaghari-Ratcliffe if the US agreed to release a woman detained in Australia, understood to be Ghodskani.

“I put this offer on the table publicly now. Exchange them,” Zarif said in a speech to the Asia Society in New York. “All these people that are in prison, inside the United States, on extradition request from the United States – we believe their charges are phoney.

“The United States believes the charges against these people in Iran are phoney. Fine. Let’s not discuss that. Let’s have an exchange.”

He said he had told the US government of his offer – which he claimed he had the authority to make – six months ago.

“We hear about Nazanin and her child. I feel sorry for them and I’ve done my best to help, but nobody talks about this lady in Australia whose child is growing up apart from its mother.”

Ghodskani and her husband, who are Iranian citizens, arrived in Australia in early 2012 from Iran on Ghodskani’s skilled work visa.

Related: Iran offers prisoner swap for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

In 2015 US authorities alleged that Ghodskani and a man in his 30s, Alireza Jalali, worked for a Malaysian telecommunications company which acquired sensitive technology from the US on behalf of an Iranian company between 2010 and 2012. The technology – which included digital and analog transmission equipment – is export-controlled by the US for national security purposes.

Court documents alleged Ghodskani told the US seller the tech would be used by the Malaysian company while she in fact “knew and intended that the export-controlled communications equipment would be shipped to Iran”, where she was allegedly employed by an Iranian company.

She and Jalali were charged with conspiracy to defraud the US and commit offences against the US, two counts of smuggling, two counts of making a false statement and two counts of money laundering.

The US issued a warrant for her arrest in December 2015, and an extradition arrest warrant was issued in Australia about 18 months later.

She was arrested in June 2017 and has been held in South Australian custody ever since. Jalali was arrested 10 days earlier at a New York airport after arriving from Malaysia. He pleaded guilty in November 2017 and was sentenced to 15 months in prison.

The Australian attorney general’s department said the extradition request remained “on foot” and would be considered by the attorney general.

Australia’s government is currently in caretaker mode ahead of its federal election next month.