MADRID (Reuters) – A Spanish soccer fan who was detained by the Iranian authorities on espionage charges for over a year as he walked to the Qatar Soccer World Cup from Europe returned to his home country on Tuesday.
Santiago Sanchez, who was 41 when he disappeared, touched down at Madrid’s Barajas Airport at around 1 p.m. (1200 GMT), where a large crowd of well wishers awaited him.
“It has been very long, very hard but I am here in my country,” a jubilant Sanchez told reporters at the airport after an emotional reunion with his family and friends.
“We are not aware of how fortunate we are to have been born here in this country,” he added, referring to Spain.
Sanchez was last heard of on Oct. 1, 2022, when he sent friends a picture of himself on the Iraq-Iran border with the caption: “Entry to Iran”.
The Spanish authorities later confirmed he had been charged with espionage and they were seeking his release.
His detention coincided with the biggest protests in Iran’s history following the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a Iranian Kurdish woman who was arrested for allegedly flouting mandatory dress codes.
His release was revealed on Dec. 31 by Iran’s Embassy in Spain which said it took place “within the framework of friendly and historical relations between the two countries and in compliance with the laws of Iran.”
Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares confirmed the news on Monday, writing on the social media platform X: “Today, happiness is complete. Finally Santiago will be very soon reunited with his family and friends in Spain.”
“The nightmare has ended at last,” Sanchez’s mother, Celia Cogedor, told reporters at the airport as she waited for his arrival.
She thanked Spanish authorities, particularly its ambassador to Iran, for their efforts, saying that without their help he would not have left Iran for years.
“The worst were the first months (after his disappearance) because nobody knew if he was alive or dead,” Cogedor said.
(Reporting by Elena Rodriguez, Aislinn Laing and Joan Faus; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)