Of them New Zealand social media influencers who were detained in Iran for almost four months have been released and have now left the country.
Social media influencers Christopher “Topher” Richwhite and Bridget Thackwray were embarking on a trip called Expedition Earth in which they aimed to travel 90 countries in a Jeep. The two recorded their trips with almostdaily vlogs and Instagram postsand documented their crossing of the border into Iran from Turkey in early July.
Soon after, they disappeared offline and all social media posts ceased. The Expedition Earth GPS locator, which previously allowed people to track their live location, is offline, with a note: “The tracker has been temporarily removed for the safety of the team in this area.”
A source close to the situation confirmed to the Guardian that the couple had been detained by security forces in Iran. Over the months of silence, the couple’s online followers, human rights experts and Iran scholars grew increasingly concerned for their well-being – and that they could become pawns in a geopolitical environment where Iranian security forces are incentivized to detain foreign tourists to avoid pressure from foreign governments. .
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Wednesday morning that the government had been working for months to get the couple out of the country and she felt “great relief” that they were now out. “I’m glad they’re safe,” she said.
Ardern said the couple’s detention had not softened New Zealand’s criticism of the Iranian regime and security forces’ violence against protesters. “He didn’t. Of course, we shared our condemnation. At the same time, we also had a duty to ensure that these New Zealanders could leave Iran,” she said.
“We worked very hard to do both.”
A Foreign Office spokesperson said Wednesday morning that two New Zealanders who were receiving consular assistance were safe and had now left the country. They would not comment further for confidentiality reasons.
Richwhite and Thackwray are minor celebrities in New Zealand. Expedition Earth has racked up over 300,000 subscribers, and the couple’s wedding earlier this year was covered by several New Zealand newspapers. Topher Richwhite is the son of wealthy New Zealander David Richwhite, one of the country’s richest men, an investment banker and a partner in Fay, Richwhite & Company.
When they crossed the Iranian border in June, Thackwray and Richwhite were first stopped and questioned by immigration officials for bringing a sanctioned vehicle into the country – they were driving a Jeep Wrangler, which is covered by the Iran’s retaliatory sanctions against the United States. In a subtitled video “Requesting an unexpected meeting with the head of immigration,” they document getting into the back seat of another car and being taken to a meeting.
“We just came out of a 45 minute meeting with the head of customs from the next town…the meeting was about who we are and why we are coming to Iran with an approved vehicle.” Richwhite said in a subsequent Instagram video. “We’re just waiting to hear the answer really. I’m quite nervous. Soon after, Thackwray posts about “getting the green light”.
The following day, the couple went to the police station to obtain further documents. Their final message is that of an Iranian flag: “Ready for Iran,” the caption reads. The Expedition Earth account, as well as the personal accounts of Thackwray and Richwhite, have not been released since. The influencers’ fanbase is growing increasingly concerned: nearly 600 comments have piled up under their latest post, most inquiring about their well-being or raising concerns for their safety.
Golriz Ghahraman, an Iranian MP and human rights spokesperson for the Green Party, said it “came to my attention in early July that something had gone wrong” after hearing from multiple public sources the disappearance of the couple.
Ghahraman said there were serious questions about whether the case prevented New Zealand from speaking out more strongly against the Iranian regime’s ongoing crackdown on protesters, in which human rights groups say nearly 12,500 people were arrested and nearly 250 killed.
Iranian expert and senior adviser to the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, Dr Kat Eghdamian, said Iran had “long used this calculated policy of holding tough negotiations hostage, especially with the West”.
On Tuesday, Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian scholar who spent more than 800 days in prison in Iran, posted a series of tweets about the couple, calling on the government to break its silence and put public pressure on the regime. Iranian.
“I can confirm that the two New Zealand travel bloggers, Topher Richwhite and his wife, Bridget Thackwray, of ‘Expedition Earth’, are missing and believed to have been arrested in Iran,” she said.
Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta issued a statement on Wednesday morning, saying 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 important”, and asking that New Zealand travelers leave the country and not travel there. She did not mention the couple.
In September, Iran’s intelligence ministry said nine foreign nationals had been arrested as “agitators” allegedly linked to anti-government protests. He said the detainees included nationals of Germany, Poland, Italy, France, the Netherlands and Sweden. A French couple, Cécile Kohler and her partner Jacques Paris, were arrested in May as they prepared to leave Tehran for Paris after a holiday. In June, French national Benjamin Brière was sentenced to eight years in prison for espionage, for piloting a drone near the border. In 2019, two Australian bloggers, Jolie King and Mark Firkin, were released from detention in Iran after being jailed for three months on espionage charges for allegedly flying a drone to take photos for their travel blog.
A family member did not respond to requests for comment.