Iran’s detention of Australian academic sparks protest campaign

Experts say Moore-Gilbert’s arrest fits a pattern of detention of Western academics to blackmail their respective countries into making political and diplomatic concessions.
Thursday 30/07/2020
A video grab from a TV program shows Kylie Moore-Gilbert. (AP)
A video grab from a TV program shows Kylie Moore-Gilbert. (AP)

Sydney/ London, - A public advocacy campaign was launched Thursday in Australia to fee British-Australian academic jailed in Iran on spying charges.

Reports have talked of Kylie Moore-Gilbert going several times on a hunger strike and attempting suicide in prison.

Nearly two years after Kylie Moore-Gilbert was detained while trying to leave Iran, a group of friends and academics are demanding that Canberra do more to resolve the situation.

The “Free Kylie” group said it had respected the Australian foreign ministry’s guidance to “remain quiet” and allow diplomats to do their work.

“But we believe that this strategy on its own has failed,” they said, adding the policy had made “little headway in improving her day-to-day living conditions, let alone securing her release”.

Moore-Gilbert, a lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, is serving a 10-year sentence for spying, a charge she has strenuously denied.

This week she was moved from a jail in Tehran to a notorious women’s prison in an old chicken-processing factory outside the capital.

Blacklisted under US human rights sanctions, Qarchak prison has become a byword for the ill-treatment of political prisoners and is described as filthy and coronavirus-ridden by non-governmental groups.

“The quarantine unit… holds all kinds of criminals, including those convicted of murder and drug and financial offences,” said the US-based Center for Human Rights in Iran.

Two female prisoners committed suicide at Iran’s Qarchak prison this month.

In June, the US Department of State reportedly described Qarchak prison as an entity responsible for “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”

Moore-Gilbert was reportedly arrested at Tehran airport by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in September 2018 after attending a conference in Qom.

It is believed she was reported by a conference delegate or someone interviewed for her research, which focused on the Gulf — in particular Bahrain.

“Please, I beg of you to do whatever it takes to get me out,” Moore-Gilbert wrote in a June 2019 letter to Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

The Cambridge graduate said in a separate letter that she had been on hunger strike five times, while unconfirmed reports said she had attempted suicide.

Australia’s foreign ministry this week said her case remained one of its “highest priorities, including for our embassy officials in Tehran”.

In an unusually strongly-worded statement, the department also warned it would “hold Iran responsible for Dr Moore-Gilbert’s safety and well-being”.

Prisoner and hostage negotiations are notoriously fraught, with governments and families forced to decide if quiet discussions are less likely to antagonise captors, often against a fraught geopolitical backdrop.

Experts say Moore-Gilbert’s arrest fits a pattern of detention of Western academics to blackmail their respective countries into making political and diplomatic concessions.

Iran’s complex political and judicial system is under state control. Hardliners use it carry out their agendas.

A file portrait of Islamic studies scholar Kylie Moore-Gilbert. AFP
A file portrait of Islamic studies scholar Kylie Moore-Gilbert.  (AFP)

Her friend and colleague Jessie Moritiz, suggested the US may be able to help facilitate a prisoner swap.

Relations between Washington and Tehran have gone from bad to worse under President Donald Trump, who pulled out of a landmark deal that saw Iran restrict its nuclear programme — long suspected of being cover for developing a weapon — in return for international sanctions relief.

More recently, Iran vowed reprisals for the US assassination of Qasem Soleimani, Al Quds Force chief, who masterminded Tehran’s aggressive activities through proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.

Nonetheless, the “Free Kylie” group said the government should explore every option and urged Australians to petition members of parliament and the media to raise awareness.

Kylie Moore-Gilbert “is in perfect health and based on previous agreements, the Australian ambassador will meet her next week,” state news agency IRNA agency said on late Wednesday, quoting a statement from the Tehran prisons organisation.

The statement denied a recent report from British newspaper The Guardian that Moore-Gilbert was physically ill and said the scheduled meeting with the envoy “was proof of the report being false”.