Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian-British academic, arrived back in Australia on 27 November after being released from prison in Iran earlier this week. She was imprisoned in October 2018 and kept behind bars for 804 days.
Moore-Gilbert was arrested in September 2018 at Tehran Airport, due to leave the country after attending an academic conference. She worked as a lecturer and researcher at Melbourne University’s Asia Institute, and had published works on authoritarian governance in the Middle East. She was accused of espionage charges and faced a 10 year sentence.
Upon her release, Moore-Gilbert described her time in Iranian prison as a “long and traumatic ordeal”. She thanked the Australian government and diplomats for securing her release, and her supporters for continually campaigning for her freedom. In September this year, her supporters took part in a “Run for Kylie”, that marked two years since she was arrested. The run was in reference to Moore-Gilbert’s commitment to keep running wherever possible, despite being in a tiny prison cell or narrow exercise yard and wearing rubber slippers.
Moore-Gilbert’s health and condition was cause for concern during her two years in prison. She was held in Evin Prison, but was transferred earlier this year to Qarchak as COVID-19 threatened to plague overcrowded prisons. She reportedly went on repeated hunger strikes to protest her imprisonment, and was often held in solitary confinement for long periods of time. Despite this, she said it was “bittersweet” to leave Iran, and said she has “nothing but respect, love and admiration for the great nation of Iran” and it’s people.
“I came to Iran as a friend and with friendly intentions, and depart Iran with those sentiments not only still intact, but strengthened,” she said.
The Australian government has not yet confirmed whether Moore-Gilbert’s release was part of a prisoner exchange with Iran. Iranian media, however, claims that three of their citizens were released on 26 November from Thailand in exchange for Moore-Gilbert. Those exchanged were apparently an Iranian businessmen and two other Iranian citizens who had been detained abroad, but they have not been named. The Young Journalist Cub, a news website affiliated to state television in Iran, announced the news on 25 November, saying that the three Iranians had been “detained abroad on baseless charges” and also called Moore-Gilbert a “dual-national spy who worked for the Zionist regime”. Thailand does not acknowledge that this was a prisoner swap, despite six months of negotiations.
Iran’s hostage diplomacy
The detention of dual and foreign nationals is a frequent tactic by the Iranian government, using hostage diplomacy to secure the release of their own nationals in foreign prisons or to make other political deals.
According to the Centre for Human Rights in Iran, there are at least 10 dual or foreign nationals who are known to be imprisoned in Iran, as of April 2020.
Many of those detained are subject to prolonged solitary confinement, interrogations, denial of due process and civil rights, and miscarriages of justice within their trials. Detainees are often given secret trials with limited access to counsel or contact with human rights organisations. The charges are normally vague and unspecified, stated only as “espionage” or “national security”. The Iranian government does not recognise dual nationality and denies the majority of these detainees consular access.
Currently, the Iranian government is being heavily criticised and called upon to stop the execution of Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali. The Swedish-Iranian dual national reportedly called his wife from Evin Prison on 24 November, and told her that he believes he will be executed within a week. Dr Djalali’s lawyers confirmed that the Iranian authorities have written an official letter stating that they will carry out the death sentence against him. He was sentenced to death in October 2017 on charges of “corruption on earth”, using “confessions” elicited from torture and threats to kill Djalali’s wife and two young children. Whilst in prison, he has often been in prolonged solitary confinement and ill-treated.
Thousands of individuals have called for his execution to be halted and he be released, with the backing of the UN, the EU, European governments, worldwide academic institutions and civil society organisations. The Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde has stated their opposition to the death penalty and has made contact with her Iranain counterpart to “ensure the verdict against Djalali is not enforced.”
Djalali is one of the 30 dual or foreign nationals that have been imprisoned in Iran since 2015.
Other prominent cases include Nazanin Zhagari-Ratcliffe, British-Iranian dual national who has been detained since 2016 and is serving a five year sentence for “allegedly plotting against the Iranian government”. Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, said that the release of Moore-Gilbert shows there is a “light at the end of the tunnel” in the ongoing fight for his wife’s release.
Sherry Izadi, the wife of detained British-Iranian construction engineer Anoosheh Ashoori, spoke to the Guardian on Moore-Gilbert’s release. She said that the “extraordinary lengths that the Australian government was prepared to go to secure her release…show how ineffective the British government has been and how little they are prepared to do in our case”. Ashoori, 66-years old, is serving a sentence of 10 years for allegedly “spying for Mossad”. Izadi said that the Foreign Office only holds the “occasional meeting” on the matter, and does not reveal much information to the relatives of the detainees, so as to not raise their hopes.
“The Iranians see all this hostage-taking like a game of chess. Everything is calculated and the next move thought through. It is all coordinated,” she claimed.
The British government has denied recent allegations that a decades-old debt of £400 million from Britain to Iran is a factor in the cases of British-Iranian nationals. The Foreign Office claims that the debt cannot be paid due to sanctions, but is not linked to the fate of the detainees.
The French support committee for Fariba Adelkah, a French-Iranian academic who has been detained since June 2019, also welcomed Moore-Gilbert’s release. She is currently under house arrest on charges of “spreading propaganda”. According to the committee, Adelkah is required to wear an electronic bracelet 24 hours a day, subject to daily administrative control and deprived of contact with anyone except a few family members. They also called for governments and the EU to act quickly to “avoid the irreparable” execution of Djalali.
IOHR’s #FreeRouhaniHostages campaign has followed the developments of the detainees. In a webinar held earlier this month on 4 November, two former detainees Ana Diamond and Xiyue Wang spoke on the issue.
Diamond, a dual citizen of Iran and Finland, said that her acquittal was only given because she was under 18 when she committed the alleged crimes, not because of her innocence. She was arrested in January 2016 by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and accused of espionage for MI6, the CIA and Mossad. She denied the charges, but was found guilty and sentenced to death. She was only released in 2016 on bail, before all charges were dropped in 2017 and she left Iran in May 2018. She said that it was framed as a “goodwill act”, preventing her from facing the problem of “no one wanting to marry her as an unmarried girl serving a prison sentence.”
Xiyue Wang, also accused of espionage, was imprisoned in Iran from 2016 to 2019, and sentenced to ten years in prison. Wang is a Chinese American, and was released in a prison swap with the US for Iranian scientist Massoud Soleimani. He told IOHR that “I think the answer is rather simple, because it works. Because every single time you look at the successful solution of a hostage situation … every time the Iranians got something.”
Watch “Iran Hostage Diplomacy: What Next?” webinar: