An Iranian scientist who was imprisoned in the US and acquitted in a federal trade secrets case had been deported, the country’s foreign minister said.
Sirous Asgari was congratulated by Mohammad Javad Zarif in an Instagram post while he was on a flight back to Iran.
“Hello friends, a good news, the plane carrying Dr Sirous Asgari was flying from the United States. Congratulations to his dear wife and family,” Mr Zarif wrote.
Mr Asgari, a professor at Iran’s Sharif University of Technology, was accused by federal prosecutors of trying to steal secret research from Case Western Reserve University and was indicted in April 2016.
The school, based in Cleveland, had been working on a project for the US Navy Office of Naval Research to create and produce anti-corrosive stainless steel.
The case was tossed out by US District Judge James Gwin and Mr Asgari was acquitted in November last year.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) started trying to deport the scientist on 12 December following his acquittal, but Iran refused to recognise him as legitimately Iranian, said Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy Homeland Security secretary.
Mr Cuccinelli told the Associated Press that Iran only provided Mr Asgari with a valid passport in late February.
DHS made several attempts to deport him, purchasing tickets for flights on 10 March, 18 March, 23 March, 1 April and 1 May – but each flight was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Asgari had been held at Louisiana’s Winn Correctional Center by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement before his deportation, said his supporters, who told The Guardian he had contracted coronavirus while imprisoned.
In April, he asked to be released to a medical facility so he could receive treatment. Mr Asgari reportedly has a history of respiratory problems.
State-run news agency IRNA reported Iran’s deputy education minister, Hossein Salar Amoli, recently said Mr Asgari had recovered from coronavirus and would be able to travel.
Iranian officials had associated Mr Asgari’s release with US prisoners held in Iran potentially being freed, which Mr Cuccinelli strongly disputed.
On Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi rejected speculation of a prisoner swap, adding that Mr Asgari would arrive in Tehran on Wednesday.
Mr Mousavi was quoted by state TV as saying: “Speculations about an exchange of Asgari for other individual is not accurate. His freedom came about based on his acquittal from charges.”
The release comes as the Trump administration continues a maximum-pressure campaign targeting Iran after unilaterally withdrawing from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018.
Since then, both countries have seen a series of escalating incidents, including a US drone strike that killed Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad earlier this year and an Iranian ballistic missile attack targeting American troops in Iraq.
Additional reporting by AP