Human rights groups and advocates for political prisoners in Iran have urged the Australian government to take a more forceful position in negotiating with Iran for the release of detained academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, but the Australian government continues to insist quiet diplomacy will be most effective.
On Tuesday, the Guardian revealed a series of letters hand-written by Moore-Gilbert in Farsi and smuggled out of Evin prison’s notorious Ward 2A, an isolated wing run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Moore-Gilbert, imprisoned since September 2018 and sentenced to 10 years on charges of espionage, wrote that she rebuffed an offer from Iran to recruit her as a spy for Tehran in exchange for her release.
“I am not a spy,” she wrote to a prison authority. “I have never been a spy and I have no interest to work for a spying organisation in any country. When I leave Iran, I want to be a free woman and live a free life, not under the shadow of extortion and threats.”
She revealed too that last year she was even shown two alternative decisions to her appeal: one for a 13-month sentence (essentially “time-served” and which would have seen her released), another confirming the original sentence of 10 years.
And she wrote that she has little money to buy food, is denied phone calls to her family, and that her failing physical and mental condition has seen her repeatedly transferred to hospital.
“I am an innocent woman … “I think I am in the midst of a serious psychological problem, I can no longer stand the pressures of living in this extremely restrictive detention ward anymore. My situation here is even more difficult due to the ban on having any phone calls with my family. I worry a lot about their reactions to my verdict but I cannot talk to them. This is really inhumane.
“I am entirely alone in Iran. I have no friends or family here and in addition to all the pain I have endured here, I feel like I am abandoned and forgotten, that after so many times of asking my embassy, I still have no money at all to endure all of this.”
Cambridge-educated Moore-Gilbert is a lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne. She holds both Australian and British citizenships, but was travelling on her Australian passport when she was detained at Tehran airport, about to board a flight out of the country after attending an academic conference.
She had been flagged as “suspicious” to the Revolutionary Guards by a fellow academic at the conference and by a person she interviewed for her research.
Human Rights Watch Australia director Elaine Pearson told the Guardian Moore-Gilbert’s letters painted a picture of desolate isolation inside Evin prison.
“She’s effectively cut off from the outside world, denied even phone calls with her family, and with very few legal or consular visits. Her health problems are not being addressed, and the prolonged confinement and isolation is taking its toll on her mental health. She’s pleaded for lawyer visits and books and money to buy basic necessities. Evin prison is notorious for its bad conditions that both foreign and Iranian political prisoners have faced for years.”
Pearson said Iran had a long history of using foreign nationals as bargaining chips to resolve diplomatic disputes – “from what we know so far, it clearly seems that Kylie’s detention is political”.
She said Moore-Gilbert’s physical and mental health was deteriorating badly in detention and the government needed to escalate its response.
“The Australian government should publicly and privately call for Kylie’s immediate release. The government should demarche the Iranian ambassador about their lack of consular access to Kylie and the myriad due process violations in her case. It is unacceptable to hold an Australian hostage like this.
“Perhaps the Australian government has been doing a lot behind closed doors, but if the quiet approach isn’t working, then it’s time to switch gears. Kylie herself has made it very clear in her letters that she wants the Australian government to act.”
A spokesman for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said Moore-Gilbert’s case was a “very high priority” for the government, and that foreign affairs minister Marise Payne had repeatedly raised the case with her Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif, most recently at a meeting on 16 January in New Delhi.
The Australian government has consistently said it rejects the spying allegations against Moore-Gilbert and the legitimacy of her conviction and sentence.
“While we continue to work towards her release, we are doing everything possible in relation to the conditions of her imprisonment.
“That includes reinforcing that consular officials from each of our countries have the right to visit and communicate with detained nationals without unreasonable delay.
The spokesman said the fact Moore-Gilbert had been allowed two consular visits in recent two months – after spending months without any contact at all – was “an example of important progress”.
“We continue to believe that the best way to secure a successful outcome is through diplomatic channels and not through the media.”
Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, told the Guardian foreign ministers from countries whose nationals were imprisoned in Iran should make their citizens’ safety their top priority in dealing with Iranian officials.
“Being silent or tiptoeing around the situation gives a green light to Iran’s judiciary and intelligence establishment to keep trampling on people’s rights with no accountability.”
Ghaemi said Moore-Gilbert should have been moved out of isolation in July 2019 when she was sentenced, “yet she remains there seven months later at the mercy of the Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence agents”.
Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of jailed British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is also currently in Evin prison, said that western governments’ insistence on quiet diplomatic efforts over its citizens detained in Iran had proven futile, and a harder line with Tehran was needed.
“The abuse that Kylie has been through is shocking. All the more that this has happened without protest. The failure to put down red lines has not got anyone home, and it has not made Australian or British citizens any safer. It has enabled an increasingly emboldened form of state hostage-taking by the Iranian regime, marketed by foreign minister Zarif.”
Ratcliffe is scheduled to meet with British prime minister Boris Johnson on Thursday.
As foreign secretary in 2017, Johnson told a Commons committee that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “teaching people journalism” in Iran. The statement was untrue, but Johnson’s words were cited by Iranian officials as evidence that she had engaged in “propaganda against the regime”.
Ratcliffe said the UK and Australian governments had failed to protect their citizens in a time of extreme vulnerability.
“The Australian and British governments have fallen short with Kylie in many ways – but it is the failure to ensure adequate food or money or clothes or even calls to her parents that really struck me. This is an innocent person caught in the middle of a government game of chess. If the embassy can’t ensure you have enough to eat in the middle of all their high-level diplomacy, then what are they actually doing? What are they actually for?”