Mark Firkin and Jolie King are being held in a notorious Iranian prison. Picture: Supplied
Mark Firkin and Jolie King are being held in a notorious Iranian prison. Picture: Supplied

Fears travel bloggers could be used as ‘bargaining chips’

There are fears Iran wants to use two Australian travel bloggers detained in Tehran as bargaining chips in a prisoner swap.

Perth couple Jolie King and Mark Firkin were arrested in July while travelling through the Iranian capital on their personal mission to "break the stigma around travelling to countries that get a bad wrap".

They were reportedly detained for flying a drone they use to film their travels without a licence.

Iran has yet to comment on the arrests, but authorities told Ms King she was being held in the hope of a prisoner swap, according to The Times.

The woman Iran reportedly wants in exchange is 40-year-old Negar Ghodskani, who was arrested in Australia in 2017 for attempting to dodge US sanctions and "illegally export controlled technology" to Iran.

This undated photo provided by the Sherburne County Sheriff's Office shows Negar Ghodskani, an Iranian woman who pleaded guilty to conspiring to facilitate the illegal export of communications technology from the US to her home country. Picture: Sherburne County Sheriff's Office via AP
This undated photo provided by the Sherburne County Sheriff's Office shows Negar Ghodskani, an Iranian woman who pleaded guilty to conspiring to facilitate the illegal export of communications technology from the US to her home country. Picture: Sherburne County Sheriff's Office via AP

Ghodskani was imprisoned in Adelaide for six months, where she gave birth to a boy in custody, and then extradited to the United States, where she pleaded guilty to the charges.

Earlier this year, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif pushed for Ghodskani's release during a speech at the Asia Society in New York, saying nobody talked about her in Australia.

"We have an Iranian lady in Australia who gave birth in prison after she was arrested on an extradition request from the United States," he said.

"But nobody talks about this lady in Australia who gave birth to a child in prison, whose child is growing up outside prison with the mother in prison."

Mr Zarif suggested at the time that Ghodskani could be swapped for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian project manager who has been detained in Iran on spying charges since 2016.

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"I put this offer on the table publicly now - exchange them," he said. But the exchange never happened.

WHAT HAS AUSTRALIA SAID?

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Thursday that the Government was pressing Iran to free Ms King and Mr Firkin, as well as another British-Australian woman whose name has not been released.

She told the Senate that she had raised the arrests "many times" with Mr Zarif, while the Australian Embassy in Tehran had made "repeated representations to very senior Iranian officials" on the prisoners' behalf.

This map shows the planned route of Australian bloggers Jolie King and Mark Firkin. Picture: thewayoverland.com/the-route?
This map shows the planned route of Australian bloggers Jolie King and Mark Firkin. Picture: thewayoverland.com/the-route?

Analysts and family members of dual nationals and others detained in Iran have long said hardliners in the Islamic Republic's security agencies use the prisoners as bargaining chips in negotiations with the West.

A UN panel in 2018 described "an emerging pattern involving the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of dual nationals" in Iran, which Tehran denied.

But Ms Payne said she did not believe the arrests related "to broader issues".

"We have no reason to think that these arrests are connected to international concern over Iran's nuclear program, United Nations sanctions or sanctions enforcement or maritime security and the safety of civilian shipping," she said.

Jolie King was seized with her Australia boyfriend Mark Firkin, allegedly for flying a drone without a licence near the capital Tehran. Picture: Supplied/Instagram
Jolie King was seized with her Australia boyfriend Mark Firkin, allegedly for flying a drone without a licence near the capital Tehran. Picture: Supplied/Instagram

Britain and Australia last month signed onto a US-led maritime security mission to protect international shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, where Iran's recent seizures of vessels has raised tensions with the West.

'SCARED AND DISORIENTED'

So far, Ms King and Mr Firkin's families have remained tight-lipped over the situation, although they have issued a brief statement via the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs.

"Our families hope to see Mark and Jolie safely home as soon as possible. We have no further comment to make at this stage," the statement reads.

However, the husband of British woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe - who is also being held in solitary confinement at Evin prison, as was Ms King - has given a frightening insight into the conditions inside.

He told the ABC his wife was now detained alongside Ms King, who he said had been distressed by her treatment.

"I know that the girl is now in with Nazanin, (she) came through scared and disoriented and obviously had been quite intimidated by being interrogated for all that time in solitary (confinement)," Mr Ratcliffe said.

"Nazanin was kept in a room without any windows - so no natural light - it was a light bulb kept on the whole time.

"(She was) taken out for interrogations blindfolded."

TRIP OF A LIFETIME

Ms King and Mr Firkin chucked in their jobs to set out on the trip of a lifetime but now, just over two years later, it's abruptly come to an end.

After reportedly making their way through the north of China after visiting Pakistan, the Perth couple are now being held in Iran for reportedly flying a drone, used to capture footage for their popular videos.

The pair left Perth in July 2017 in a Toyota LandCruiser bound for the UK, planning to travel for two years driving across 36 countries.

Ms King and Mr Firkin have frequently used a drone in photos and videos published of their travels through Australia, Asia and the Middle East, with nearly 19,000 people following their adventures on their Instagram page.

Ms King and Mr Firkin run a YouTube channel called The Way Overland, however their last video was posted more than 11 weeks ago, in June this year, about driving through Pakistan.

Their last Instagram update on their shared account was posted on June 26.

Concerned friends posted in recent weeks asking if the couple was OK.

Several followers were worried when they didn't hear from the couple at their next stop.


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