‘Abandoned and Forgotten’: Jailed Academic Writes of Despair in Iran by Megan Specia, The New York Times, 21 January 2020
A British-Australian woman, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, was detained in September 2018 while attending a conference. In a series of letters, she described the hellishness of her confinement.
By Megan Specia
LONDON — “I am entirely alone in Iran,” she wrote in one letter. “In addition to all the pain I have endured here, I feel like I am abandoned and forgotten.”
Those words were written by a British-Australian academic, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who has been held in an Iranian prison for more than a year — including long stretches of solitary confinement — in a series of letters published by British news outlets this week.
Ms. Moore-Gilbert was detained in Iran in September 2018 while attending a conference. She was later convicted of spying and sentenced to 10 years in prison. She is being held in Evin Prison in Tehran in solitary confinement in a high-security wing run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Detailing the harrowing conditions, Ms. Moore-Gilbert wrote about her deteriorating health, begged to be released from the wing where she had spent much of her time behind bars and rejected bids by the Iranian authorities to recruit her as a spy.
“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.”
The letters, addressed to three Iranian officials, are believed to have been written in Persian between June and December 2019, before being smuggled out of the jail by an intermediary and published by The Times of London and The Guardian.
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Ms. Moore-Gilbert accused the Revolutionary Guards of “playing an awful game with me.”
“I’m taking psychiatric medications, but these 10 months that I have spent here have gravely damaged my mental health,” Ms. Moore-Gilbert wrote in a letter dated July 2019. “I am still denied phone calls and visitations, and I am afraid that my mental and emotional state may further deteriorate if I remain in this extremely restrictive detention ward.”
The letters were revealed at a time when the already strained relationship between Iran and the West has drastically deteriorated, after the American killing of an Iranian general and subsequent retaliatory strikes from Iran. Ms. Moore-Gilbert is just one of several Westerners and dual nationals being held in Iranian prisons on charges that their families and officials say are unfounded.
Ms. Moore-Gilbert, a Cambridge-educated professor in Islamic studies at the University of Melbourne, denies the charges against her, as do her colleagues and family. She is being held at the same notorious Tehran prison as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian arrested in 2016 and charged with espionage.
Many fear that the women are being used as bargaining chips in the tensions between Iran and the West.
Richard Ratcliffe, Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, said that he had seen the letters and that they spoke to the traumatizing conditions faced by those arbitrarily detained in Iran.
He urged the British and Australian governments, as well as the broader international community, to take a harsher stance on Iran’s arbitrary detention of foreign nationals.
Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a program director at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was detained in Tehran while trying to return to Britain after visiting relatives in Iran with her husband and young daughter. She was accused of plotting to overthrow Iran’s government, a charge her family and the foundation have vigorously denied.
Mr. Ratcliffe said that the arrests of his wife, of Ms. Moore-Gilbert and of other foreign nationals were akin to the taking of hostages, adding that governments needed to take a stronger stance to gain their release.
“I think the failure by the international community to call out Iran’s hostage-taking for what it is has enabled the growth of this practice,” Mr. Ratcliffe said. “The refusal to see things as they are does not protect the people in the middle of it.”
But, he also noted, the priority should be on securing Ms. Moore-Gilbert’s release from solitary detention, which had clearly impacted her mental and physical health.
“The only thing that matters is getting her out of solitary confinement,” Mr. Ratcliffe said. “Everything else can wait for another day.”
The Australian authorities first confirmed Ms. Moore-Gilbert’s detention nearly a year after her arrest, when it was revealed that a British-Australian blogger and her Australian boyfriend were also being held. The blogger and her boyfriend were released in October in an apparent prisoner swap.
In another letter that Ms. Moore-Gilbert wrote to her Iranian case manager, she stated her “official and definitive rejection of your offer to me to work with the intelligence branch” of the Revolutionary Guards.
“I am not a spy. I have never been a spy and I have no interest to work for a spying organization in any country,” she wrote, according to The Times of London. She said that she was innocent of all of the charges against her and that she had been the victim of “fabrications and trumped-up accusations.”
A spokesman for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said that Ms. Moore-Gilbert’s case had been raised by Marise Payne, the foreign minister, in a meeting with her Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in India last week.
“While we continue to work towards her release, we are doing everything possible in relation to the conditions of her imprisonment,” the spokesman said, according to the newspaper The Australian.
Ms. Moore-Gilbert and her family have been receiving consular assistance from the Australian authorities, and the British Foreign Office is working in cooperation with the Australians. She was visited by Australian consular officials in December and January after being denied consular visits in the past, including during the months that her letters were written.
The British Foreign Office said in a statement that it remained “extremely concerned about the welfare of British dual nationals detained in Iran,” and noted that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had raised those concerns with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a Jan. 9 meeting.
The British Foreign Office advises citizens against all travel to Iran, citing a risk of arrest. A request to the Iranian Embassy in London for response to the letters was not immediately answered.
Human rights groups and politicians in Australia and Britain expressed outrage after the details of the letters were published. Elaine Pearson, the Australia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a tweet on Monday that Ms. Moore-Gilbert had “already been in prison far too long” and urged the Australian government to “ramp up efforts to bring her home.”
But Mr. Ratcliffe, along with many other activists who have campaigned for the release of the foreigners, said that he believed the diplomatic back-and-forth had fallen short and that the negotiations had stalled.
“What’s going on is a game of chess,” Mr. Ratcliffe said, “where you’ve got innocent people being used.”