Two New Zealand influencers who were detained for nearly four months in Iran have said they are “extremely relieved” to be out of the country and back with family.
Christopher “Topher” Richwhite and Bridget Thackwray were on a trip they called Expedition Earth; driving a Jeep through 70 countries to “promote environmental issues” and documenting their travels on Instagram. They disappeared in early July, shortly after they were questioned by authorities upon entering Iran. The pair are understood to have been kept in the country by security forces.
On Thursday the pair made their first public statement since their release, saying, “We are extremely relieved and happy to be back with our families. We are most grateful to all those who have supported us over recent months and thank them sincerely for all their help during this challenging chapter”.
“We are safe and well,” they said, and requested privacy “while we collect our bearings and enjoy being reunited with our families”.
Richwhite and Thackwray are minor celebrities in New Zealand. Expedition Earth gained more than 300,000 followers, and the pair’s wedding earlier this year was covered by multiple New Zealand newspapers. Topher Richwhite is the son of David Richwhite, one of New Zealand’s richest men, an investment banker and partner in Fay, Richwhite & Company.
The New Zealand government worked for months to try to secure the couple’s release from the country and there are concerns that Richwhite and Thackwray’s detainment may have softened or delayed the government’s statements about abuses by the Iranian regime amid widespread arrests and violence against protesters.
The Iranian community in New Zealand has repeatedly called on the government to strengthen its stance, presenting a petition in early October asking for more explicit condemnation of regime violence.
On Wednesday, immediately after the pair’s release, foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta issued a statement updating travel warnings for Iran and urging New Zealanders currently in the country to depart. New Zealand’s parliament is expected to pass a motion on Thursday evening condemning the violence against protesters. Previously, the prime minister had shared concern in response to media questions, but the foreign minister and parliament had not issued a formal statement of condemnation or concern, as it has done on other issues such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and reports of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Iranian-born MP and Green party human rights spokesperson, Golriz Ghahraman, said that while she was “hugely relieved that they have now left Iran” she remained concerned that the couple’s detention had been behind a softer response from New Zealand.
“New Zealand’s stance and our unwillingness to … introduce the kind of actions or statements that other like-minded nations have done has been highly unusual,” she said. “It’s reasonable to assume this [the couple’s detainment] had some influence”.
She said this was “deeply concerning for two reasons – one, that New Zealand may have entered into negotiations with a government that’s currently committing human rights atrocities, and that may have incentivised Iran to keep two kiwis detained … And then secondly, it may have emboldened the Iranian regime in its violence against its own people.”
Prime minister Jacinda Ardern said on Wednesday that the detainment did not result in a softer stance: “It did not. Of course, we have shared our condemnation. At the same time, we have had also a duty of care to try and ensure that those New Zealanders were able to exit Iran,” she said.
“We’ve worked very hard to do both.”