As I write this from my cosy office, on the other side of the world a brilliant young Melbourne woman, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, languishes in Iran’s notorious Qarchak Prison – described by the Human Rights Activists News Agency as “the most dangerous and worse prison” in Iran.
Her family, friends, and a growing army of strangers around the world, are desperately worried about her health and welfare. Though she’s been behind bars for two years, the Australian government has not managed to get her home.
Iranian officials have branded her a spy and sentenced her to a 10 year jail term. How could this have happened to this popular and respected young academic?
The trip had started so promsingly. On August 24, 2018, Kylie, then 30, flew into Iran’s capital, Tehran, to attend a course in the nearby city of Qom.
A lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, (she’d graduated from Cambridge with first class honours in Asian and Middle East studies in 2013 before getting her PHD at the University of Melbourne) she had been excited about the course in Qom. The ancient city is nicknamed “the religious capital of Iran,” being the largest centre for Shi’a scholarship in the world. Feted by colleagues for her academic brilliance and gentle, warm personality, Kylie was regarded as a star on the rise in scholarly circles and her trip would add valuable insight into her knowledge of the Middle East.
But three weeks later, at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, as Kylie was readying to fly home, she was suddenly taken aside, arrested and interrogated. The terrified young woman was accused of being a spy.
It’s thought that a fellow academic on the tour reported her as “suspicious” to authorities, as after her course, she’d opted to spend a few extra days in Qom, carrying out some research interviews.
“Someone in her group must have reported her to the authorities,” says New York-based human rights activist Hadi Ghaemi, from the Centre for Human Rights In Iran.
“They would have been following her around, watching who she spoke to, mounting a case against her.”
In a closed court, Kylie was found guilty, and sentenced to ten years jail.
At first, she was jailed in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, held in its severely restrictive Ward 2A, controlled by the intelligence organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC.)
Here she was mostly kept in solitary confinement in a tiny cell with no bed or window, where she reportedly had to sleep on the floor beside a toilet.
Reports have trickled out through families of other prisoners that she was given drugs against her will. Some of Kylie’s letters smuggled out of jail have also given a frightening glimpse into her ordeal, in which she refers to plans for a hunger strike, of books being confiscated, of the pitiful lack of funds to buy personal items, “I never have enough money in my account, given my embassy never transfer me enough,”- and her frustration at being labelled a spy.
“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 writes in one letter. “In addition to all the pain I have endured here, I feel like I am abandoned and forgotten,” she says in another.
“Kylie is an academic researcher. She’s not a spy,” says friend and colleague, Melbourne academic Dara Conduit, who completed her PHD in Middle East politics at the same time as Kylie, in 2017. The two celebrated their year’s end with a memorable lunch with other colleagues.
“She has such a brilliant mind and immediately got a job at Melbourne University, commencing 2018. That just doesn’t happen to most people that quickly. She is not only extremely clever, she’s also very polite, considerate and highly respectful toward the subjects of her research,” says Dara. “Before she left for Iran, Kylie was just at the start of her exciting career.
“She was arrested because she was an Australian – seen as someone valuable to the Iranian regime for ‘hostage diplomacy’ purposes.”
Dara and friends are now speaking out in defiance of the Australian government’s request that the case remains hush-hush.
“Kylie’s situation raises important questions; what support can any of us expect from our Government, if something goes so wrong when we travel?” says Dara.
“This could happen to any Australian – whether you’re a researcher or a holiday maker.”
She says Kylie is gluten-intolerant and she and friends worry enormously about her diet and general health as well as her psychological condition.
Alarmingly, last month Kylie was transferred to notorious Qarchak south of Tehran. Overcrowded, it’s teeming with violent criminals, “Here you have to watch out for everyone, both guards and fellow inmates,” says Hadi Ghaemi, who has been supporting prisoners in Iran for 17 years.
Australia’s Department Of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has disclosed that the Australian ambassador to Iran, Lyndall Sachs, visited Kylie in jail on August 2.
“Dr Moore-Gilbert is well and has access to food, medical supplies and books,” DFAT says in a statement. “We will continue to seek regular consular access to Dr Moore-Gilbert.”
It adds, “We believe that the best chance of resolving Dr Moore-Gilbert’s case lies through the diplomatic path and not through the media.”
But Reza Khandran, the husband of jailed human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudah, counters, “I spoke to Kylie on the phone two days after she was taken to Qarchak prison. She said that she was not well and that she was upset and depressed.
“She said she had been brought there as punishment. A few days after the news broke, the Australian ambassador and Kylie’s lawyer met with her in Qarchak prison. They said Kylie was fine and had everything – while Kylie told me she is very upset and depressed and can not eat anything. I recorded the conversation.”
Hadi Ghaemi is equally skeptical. “Your government says she is well? How do you define ‘well’? She is breathing, yes! But that does not mean she is well!”
He disagrees that the Australian government’s “keep this to ourselves” stance is best for Kylie.
“Your government has had two years to do something ‘quietly and diplomatically’ for Kylie and it has not been successful,” he exclaims. “For many months, the Australian public were not even aware that she was behind bars; your government kept that a secret. They haven’t managed to get her out. I’ve been surprised that the Australian media has paid so little attention to her case for so long. The best thing everyone can do for her is to speak up about this.”
Asked what more our government could have done, he replies: “So much more. I’ve followed these kinds of cases for years involving prisoners. Your government has had multiple chances. Much more pressure should have been applied by Australia to get the support countries like South Korea and Japan; a collective move would help push to get Kylie out. Iran reacts to this kind of pressure; if multiple countries apply pressure, you get results. This has not happened; clearly. Or Kylie would be out of jail! Australia has failed Kylie.”
Further, he adds, “As Kylie is a UK-Australian citizen, both governments should have worked together more closely to do something, recruiting many other countries.”
So what can we all do? “Just keep talking about her. If occasionally she can get access to someone’s phone and see the internet, to see her name there and know people are thinking about her, that they care about her and are trying to free her, that’s incredibly important. It will help her immensely. When you’re locked away, you need to know people are out there thinking of you.”
He reflects, “I find it funny when a government wants to keep everything quiet. That’s actually the classic position used by Iranian interrogators; they want everything hidden when they’re holding people captive, knowing that publicity will derail their efforts and draw attention to what they’re doing!”
In the meantime, supporters are hoping at the very least she gets transferred back to Evin Prison; but not to an appalling cell in solitary confinement, rather to an area holding other non-violent prisoners.
Says Reza Khandran, “I very much hope that Kylie will return to Evin Prison – not to a security detention centre, but to a public ward, where my wife Nasrin and the political prisoners are. They have better conditons than Qarchak.”
Even so, his wife, Nasrin Sotoudeh, has just begun a hunger strike at Evin Prison, demanding the release of prisoners threatened by the COVID-19 virus, which is rife in the jail.
Dara Conduit and other colleagues, frustrated at the Australian government’s inability to get Kylie out after two years, have formed an action group, urging supporters to push to help free their friend by contacting politicians and media organisations and speaking up about the case. (Their website is FreeKylie.Net )
“I hope Kylie knows a lot of people are thinking of her all the time, and we won’t give up pushing for her release until she’s back home again,” says Dara.
To sign the Free Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert petition go to https://www.change.org/p/scott-morrison-free-dr-kylie-moore-gilbert