Press conference

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Release of Australian citizen in Afghanistan, Professor Timothy Weeks.
20 November 2019

Marise Payne:

Good morning, everyone, and thank you very much for coming here this morning. I'm very, very pleased to be able to welcome the release of Australian citizen Professor Timothy Weeks from hostage detention in Afghanistan with his colleague, Professor Kevin King. Professor Weeks has been in detention for three years and that has been an extraordinarily long time for him and also a very, very long time for his family. I had the opportunity to speak with his family last night and they are needless to say extraordinarily relieved, extraordinarily pleased that they will be able to welcome home Timothy - and very, very grateful to those who have worked so hard to achieve this release. In that context, I want to acknowledge the President of the United States and the United States Government and certainly all those involved in the effort to secure the release of the two gentlemen.  I also want to particularly acknowledge President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan. His efforts in the pursuit of confidence-building measures and the pursuit of the freedom of these two men have been extremely important to achieving their release.  I know the Prime Minister is intending to speak to President Ghani later today and to convey Australia's thanks for his efforts in securing the release of Mr Weeks. And I look forward to seeing the time when we are able to welcome him back to Australia’s shores.

Journalist:

What can tell you us about his condition and when he might be home?

Marise Payne:

I understand that our consular officials, who have been with him since he was released, say that he is in good spirits, that he’s okay. But of course, as you would expect after three years in detention, we will be making sure that he has the best possible support and care and medical checks and all the things that go with that process. As to the timing, I think that’s very much a matter for both medical advice if it’s required, but also for Tim and his family. This has obviously been an extraordinarily traumatic experience and one which they will work through and make their own arrangements for when they’re ready.

Journalist:

What can you tell us about the process that led to his release? How long has this been going on? What- how did it happen?

Marise Payne:

Well I think it’s fair to say that the process leading to his release, without any exaggeration, has really been going on for three years.  I know as Defence Minister, I was involved in discussions in that previous role of mine when we had hoped and thought there might be opportunities to achieve the release of Professor Weeks and Professor King. So, this has been an ongoing effort for a long time between Australia, between the United States, and Afghanistan to try to achieve this outcome - that we have been able to do it now after three long years is of course an enormous relief.

Journalist:

And what made the difference? How did it happen right now?

Marise Payne:

I think it’s difficult to say specifically what may have made the difference on this occasion. But what’s important to recognise is that as part of the efforts that President Ghani and the Afghanistan Government are making in confidence-building measures, they are seeking to pursue peace in Afghanistan. We know that Australia has been intimately involved in the challenges of the terrorist environment in Afghanistan for a long time now. Many Australians have made the ultimate sacrifice in that fight. So, the efforts of President Ghani and his government in pursuing peace, in engaging in these confidence-building measures such as this undertaking are very important steps towards that outcome.

Journalist:

Can you talk us through exactly what was involved in securing his release? We understand that three Taliban prisoners were released in prison swap agreement with the Government. Can you talk us through that?

Marise Payne:

These are obviously very complex and difficult processes. They involve multiple governments, they involve non-state actors of course, particularly in the kidnap situation. And I won’t go into all of the detail of that, for a range of reasons, many of them operational.  But suffice to say that in the effort to build confidence in Afghanistan, to pursue peace, to work with the United States on a number of those endeavours, we have been able to achieve this outcome and for both the Weeks and the King families, we are very, very relieved.

Journalist:

Were any Australian Defence Force personnel involved in the release?

Marise Payne:

No.

Journalist:

We understand that one of the brothers of the Taliban deputy was released as a part of this agreement. Can you sort of- is there any concerns around how does this sort of hold out?

Marise Payne:

I’m not going to go into the operational details of that part of the process but what I would say is that in what are extremely complex and difficult situations and circumstances – and let’s bear in mind, we’re talking about a hostage situation in which these men have been detained for over three years – from time to time, governments and parties to those circumstances will come to an agreement to achieve an outcome, an outcome such as the one that we have today. From Australia’s perspective - and from the perspective of the Weeks family and from the perspective of the long-term aims of the president, President Ghani, and the Afghanistan Government - it is about building peace. It is about confidence-building measures in that process and that has led us to where we are today, and I think that is a very important step.

Journalist:

We understand that the prisoner swap arrangement has been made public, so it is now public knowledge. Is there any reason as to why the Government isn’t willing to release those details?

Marise Payne:

Well, the Government is not a party to the arrangement.  The arrangements have been made - as they are often in these complex circumstances - between other parties. We are simply very grateful that the outcome of these particular efforts, and particularly the outcomes of the confidence-building measures that President Ghani is pursuing and that the United States is supporting - that the outcome has been one in which we have seen the final release of Timothy Weeks and hopefully very soon his welcome back to Australian shores.

Journalist:

How did his family react to the news?

Marise Payne:

When I spoke to some of his family members last night, they were of course overjoyed, extremely relieved, extremely grateful to those who assisted in the release and who achieved this outcome and very much looking forward to talking to Tim. I understand that conversation, that first conversation, has happened. I don’t think any of us can begin to imagine how incredible that felt for his family here and for Tim himself.

Journalist:

How long will it take him to come back to Australia?

Marise Payne:

As I’ve said, that will be a matter that is determined by Tim and by his family, based on both his circumstances and his health. He has obviously been through a very difficult and traumatic period, and the processes after release are ones which are prioritising his wellbeing and his health, and he and his family will make those arrangements when the time is right. Thank you everyone.

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