Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson (C) addresses the media as he stands next to Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Tobias Billstrom (L) and Sweden’s Minister of Justice Gunnar Strommer (R) during a press conference after the release of two Swedish citizens from an Iranian prison as part of a prisoner exchange with Iran, in Stockholm, on June 15, 2024. Photo AFP

STOCKHOLM –  Iran and Sweden announced a prisoner exchange on Saturday in which a former Iranian official was released in Sweden in exchange for a European Union diplomat and a second Swede.

Hamid Noury, a 63-year-old Iranian former prisons official serving a life sentence in Sweden, landed at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport at around 5:30 pm (1400 GMT) where he was welcomed by family members and officials, state television footage showed.Around five hours later, at 1920 GMT, Johan Floderus, an EU diplomat, and Saeed Azizi, a Swedish national arrested in Iran in November 2023, landed in Stockholm.

“They are free and on Swedish soil again,” Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson told reporters, adding that the pair were reunited with their families.

“They have been through hell on Earth, and are now able to reunite with their loved ones,” he said.

“They are in good condition given the circumstances.”

Floderus, a 33-year-old EU diplomat, had been held in Iran since April 2022 accused of espionage, for which he risked a death sentence.

Following his release, his father, Matts Floderus, told Swedish news agency TT that the family “are of course terribly happy”.

State media in neutral Oman, which has acted as a mediator between Iran and Western governments in the past, said that following its mediation, the two governments had agreed to the “mutual release” of detained nationals.

“Those released were transferred from Tehran and Stockholm to Muscat today, 15 June 2024, for their repatriation,” the official Oman News Agency said.

Noury was arrested at Stockholm airport in November 2019 and sentenced to life in prison in July 2022 for his role in mass killings in Iranian jails in 1988.

He thanked the officials and the people of Iran for his release.

He denounced the former rebel People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), whose activists were instrumental in his prosecution and conviction in Sweden, as “traitors who have sold their country”.

At least 5,000 prisoners were killed in Iranian jails in 1988 to avenge attacks carried out by the MEK in the closing stages of the Iran-Iraq war, when it fought alongside Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s troops.

The MEK, which remains outlawed as a “terrorist” organisation in Iran, condemned Sweden’s decision to release Noury as “shameful and unjustifiable”.

It said the exchange would embolden Iran “to step up terrorism, hostage-taking and blackmail”.

A Swedish court had convicted Noury of “grave breaches of international humanitarian law and murder”. He had argued he was on leave during the period in question.

Iran condemned the sentence but Sweden insisted the trial had been held under its principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows it to try a case regardless of where the alleged offence took place.

In a statement, Kristersson said Iran had made Floderus and Azizi “pawns in a cynical negotiation game, with the aim of getting Iranian citizen Hamid Noury released from prison in Sweden”.

As prime minister, he had “a special responsibility for the safety of Swedish citizens”, he added.

“I understand that this (prisoner swap) raises mixed feelings, not least among Swedes of Iranian background,” Kristersson later told reporters.

“This was no easy decision for the government to take.”

At least two other Swedish citizens remain in custody in Iran, including dual national Ahmad Reza Jalali, who is on death row after being convicted of espionage.

Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said Sweden had tried to secure his release, but Tehran refused to discuss his case as it does not recognise dual nationality.

“Unfortunately, Iran refuses to recognise him as a Swedish citizen,” Billstrom said.

At least six other Europeans are detained in Iran, from Austria, Britain, France and Germany.

On Thursday, French citizen Louis Arnaud, 36, returned to Paris after spending more than 20 months incarcerated in Iran on national security charges.

Olivier Vandecasteele, a Belgian aid worker freed by Tehran in May 2023 in another prisoner swap, described Saturday’s release as a “bittersweet moment” because of the other foreigners still held in Iran.

“Our mobilisation isn’t over with today’s returns,” he told AFP. “More still need to get back home to their loved ones.”

Activists and some Western governments accuse Iran of pursuing a strategy of taking foreign nationals as hostages to force concessions from the West. – Agency