To leave Tehran’s Evin prison is never as simple as to walk out of its gates. The British-Australian academic Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert survived 804 days as a defiant hostage to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), accused variously of being a Mossad agent, an MI6 agent or a spy for Australia, and held in the Guard Corps’ notorious 2A wing of Evin.
Two years since Moore-Gilbert won her freedom, reminders of the cruel capriciousness of Iran’s hostage diplomacy are all around.
This month, two British nationals, including Iran’s highest-profile political prisoner, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, were freed after the UK paid Iran a decades-old £400m debt. But two more Britons remain held by the country.
Days later, an Iranian-Australian man, Shokrollah Jebeli, died in Evin.
Moore-Gilbert knows how lucky she is.
“I can’t just switch off and move on with my life and forget my friends there and forget the horrible stories I heard and the things I’ve seen,” she tells Guardian Australia. “I have to use my voice to speak out.”
Moore-Gilbert says she is “absolutely stoked” that Britons Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori are free, but furious that some in the British establishment celebrated “like it’s some victory for British diplomacy”. She calls it “shameful” that the debt repayment did not secure the release of all four Britons.
“Nazanin served both sentences in full … six years. It’s not a victory …. if British diplomacy really was effective, they would have got her out before her sentence ended.”
And Moore-Gilbert worries about what comes next.
She argues paying cash to the Revolutionary Guards will “entrench the practice” of hostage diplomacy: arbitrarily arresting foreign citizens on spurious charges in order to leverage a diplomatic advantage, or simply a high price, in exchange for their release.
“This incentivises hostage-taking. It’s the same faction within the IGRC every time, they brag about it, they say ‘look at all the money we’ve got just because we arrested a couple of spies’.”
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was formed in the aftermath of Iran’s 1979 revolution, charged with upholding the ideals of the Islamic republic and defending it from foreign and domestic threats. It was the Guards who arrested, tried and held Moore-Gilbert for the majority of her time in prison.
Moore-Gilbert says they are a law unto themselves, “a state within a state”: ruthless, brutal, but also riven by factionalism and ideological inconsistencies, and in thrall to conspiracy theories and paranoia.
The Guards have been proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the US and other countries. More money in their hands, Moore-Gilbert argues, makes the world less safe.
“The Revolutionary Guards believe this is their money. The Iranian people won’t see a penny of it. The IRGC will use it to buy weapons, they will use it to kill people on the streets next time a protest movement erupts in Iran. They will funnel weapons and send more mercenaries to Syria, to Palestine, to Yemen, to Iraq, wherever else they are interfering.”
The red line
Moore-Gilbert had travelled to Iran to attend an academic conference in the city of Qom. But she was a spy, the Guards insisted. Isolated from any contact with the outside world, Moore-Gilbert was told again and again that no one would come for her: her country had abandoned her, her family would forget.
Over more than two years, through hundreds of hours of interrogations, she rejected the ever-shifting allegations; she made no confessions; she refused repeated overtures to spy on the Guards’ behalf.
No evidence was ever presented that Moore-Gilbert, a lecturer in Islamic Studies at Melbourne University, was a spy for any country. The Australian government dismissed the charges as baseless.
She was nonetheless tried by justice Abolqasem Salavati – known as “the hanging judge” for the number of capital sentences he has imposed – inevitably convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Moore-Gilbert’s freedom was ultimately secured by a complicated prisoner swap involving four countries. Three Iranian terrorists, convicted of an attempted bombing on the Israeli embassy in Bangkok, were freed from a Thai jail and welcomed back to Iran with garlands of flowers in a macabre, mocking felicitation.
Moore-Gilbert draws a distinction between a prisoner swap and acquiescence to demands for money – “essentially blackmail”.
“I know it’s a bit rich of me to say this when I was in the same situation, and it is a moral quandary because innocent people are suffering and you want to alleviate that suffering, but there has to be a red line somewhere. And I think money exchanging hands is that red line. Because you don’t know what they’re going to use that money to do.
“I’m very keenly aware that three convicted terrorists were exchanged for me. While assurances were given to the Australian government that these guys would never leave Iranian territory … if one of those three conducted an attack or killed someone, obviously I would feel somehow personally responsible or implicated in that because it’s because of me that they’re not behind bars. That’s hugely worrying to me.
“And I do have some moral qualms about that. But I also think if you look at the other prisoner swaps that have occurred, it’s rare that it’s been terrorists, it’s often been Iranians convicted in the west of breaking sanctions.”
Moore-Gilbert argues the rest of the world needs to act collectively to halt the practice, to make the price Iran and other states pay for engaging in hostage diplomacy too high.
“Every western country who has citizens taken hostage in Iran just kind of reinvents the wheel, they don’t seem to learn from each other’s mistakes or collaborate at all.”
‘It was a nightmare’
The capriciousness of the Iranian regime emerges throughout Moore-Gilbert’s new memoir, The Uncaged Sky, in the erratic attitudes and contradictory demands of her jailers.
Interrogators switch, day to day, hour to hour, from oleaginous to threatening, from flirtatious to curtly dismissive.
At one point, Moore-Gilbert’s captors want her to entice her then-husband – Israeli dual national Ruslan Hodorov – to Iranian territory. When that is refused, they demand she submit to being filmed for short propaganda films, denouncing the west.
She was given vanishingly little information about her situation or the world outside. Cellmates turned out to be spies and the one person within the regime in which she placed some faith – a Mr Hosseini – was summarily removed after she attempted to smuggle out a letter pleading for help. That, she writes, marked a moment of crisis.
“Whatever thin tendril of hope I still clutched at slipped from my grasp and I entered a place of blind, unrelenting pain … I don’t know how it happened, but I found myself beating my own skull against the wall of my cell. Dozens of times.
“There was no hope.”
A year of Moore-Gilbert’s sentence was spent in solitary confinement, “in some sense worse than physical torture”.
“It eats you away from the inside and you go crazy inside your own head. You become your own worst enemy.
“For a couple of days, you can cope. But if you’re there for months and months on end, it is torture. For me, the beginning was really rough because I had no idea where I was or who had captured me or why I was there. I didn’t understand the rules of the place. I didn’t have any language at all. It was a nightmare.”
The memoir’s other recurrent theme is Moore-Gilbert’s repeated pleas for her case to be made public.
She had been in prison a year before it was reported, and then only because two other Australians were arrested (then relatively swiftly released).
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