Scott Burchill, Deakin University
The brutal 804-day incarceration of Kylie Moore-Gilbert in Iran on fictitious charges was an appalling travesty. It remains inexplicable.
Moore-Gilbert is an Australian-British academic who was conducting field research on Bahranian exiles in Iran when she was suddenly detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, at the airport gate in Tehran. It seems her arrest was opportunistic. Unsubstantiated charges were made that she spied for MI6, along with unproven allegations that her husband was linked to Israel’s Mossad.
Subsequent attempts to lure her Russian-Israeli husband to Iran and turn Moore-Gilbert into a spy for the state were so amateurish and preposterous, one is left with the impression that her captors were soon as perplexed by her arrest as she was. Were they just religious zealots driven by an irrational hatred and suspicion of all things Western?
They must have known in advance that, according to their own metrics, she was a low value target. It is absurd to think MI6 or any spy service would send someone to Iran who didn’t speak Farsi. It also appears that they had not developed any plans about what to do with her once she was under their control.
This uncertainty and their inability to provide Moore-Gilbert with plausible answers to her questions significantly contributed to her suffering, initially in solitary confinement in 2A at Evin prison, later at the remote desert prison Qarchak.
A political prisoner, despite lack of evidence
She became a political prisoner convicted of espionage, despite the fact that her crimes could not be substantiated with incriminatory documents or recordings. In what was a de facto admission of this (which Bernard Collaery and Witness K in Australia would more recently come to understand), the judge at her trial invoked “national security” to conceal the lack of evidence against her.
Ultimately, Tehran exchanged Moore-Gilbert for three Iranians held in Thailand, after protracted negotiations with Canberra. But it is not clear that hostage diplomacy was the initial motivation for her arrest, and it only became an option when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps concluded that Moore-Gilbert had nothing else to offer them. By that time, the growing public awareness of her plight through international media had left a deepening stain on Iran’s image around the world.
Strained relations between Tehran and Canberra delayed her freedom. Only a few short years ago, during Julie Bishop’s tenure as Australia’s foreign minister, relations between the two countries were significantly improving.
Regrettably, like so many of Australia’s bilateral relations, taking cues from Washington has become the default setting: leverage and influence have been traded for little or no gain. Quiet diplomacy made no progress until Moore-Gilbert’s case became a cause célèbre among her academic colleagues in Australia and later in media circles – a shift in strategy that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra strongly opposed.
Inside the prison cells
Her memoir of this terrible experience is detailed, beautifully written and heartbreaking. She takes us inside her prison cells as she battles daily indignities and atrocious conditions, the petty hostility of her guards, repetitive and pointless interrogations, hunger strikes and planted informants.
The only happiness she found was with transient fellow prisoners who were often whisked away without warning. Infrequent phone calls to Australia and occasional acts of defiance and resistance, such as climbing onto the prison roof before guards could stop her, also kept her morale from hitting rock bottom.
Teaching herself Farsi and maintaining an analytical view of politics, religion and human nature helped to maintain her mental equilibrium when despair was the more tempting reaction to her situation. Readers can only speculate how they would have fared in similar circumstances, wondering if they could have endured the prospect of a ten-year prison sentence for bogus crimes with such strength, composure and dignity.
The most impressive aspect of her story is that, unlike her heart, Moore-Gilbert’s mind did not break. Despite her captors’ sadistic game-playing, led by an infatuated case officer who seemed to want to marry his prisoner, her isolation from friends and family, and a private betrayal, she maintained hope when precious little was apparent.
With trust in such rare supply during her confinement, and the mounting physical, emotional and mental toll of her incarceration, Moore-Gilbert’s resilience was astonishingly impressive. At the end of her account, even she seems surprised by her inner strength and capacity to maintain a spirit of hope under such dispiriting conditions.
Why the West is culpable, too
It is tempting to conclude that Moore-Gilbert’s appalling treatment was simply the product of a brutal, authoritarian government that is not committed to the human rights of either its own citizens or those of foreigners. Tehran’s record in this area is little short of barbaric, especially its treatment of women, its theocratic intolerances and its liberal use of the death penalty.
But as we know from the United States penal colony at Guantanamo Bay, post-9-11 renditions, and the torture of enemy combatants in Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq war, liberal democracies are are no less reluctant to use the same techniques of incarceration on their enemies. They also lock up journalists and publishers such as Julian Assange, for simply exposing their crimes. The West is in no position to lecture others about good international citizenship.
Nor does the Western world shy away from forming close friendships with other countries in the Persian Gulf with horrific legal systems, such as Saudi Arabia, which make Iran look like a liberal paradise. Human depravity is neither politically, nationally nor culturally specific.
The Iranian political elite and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are paranoid, but with some justification.
They remember how in 1953, the CIA and MI6 overthrew the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, because he nationalised Anglo-Iranian oil. They recall US support for the tyrannical and brutal Shah, whom they restored to power in the country after removing his secular nationalist predecessor.
They know that since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran has paid a heavy price for successfully defying the United States. Economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation, obsessive calls for regime change within the US and Israel, cyber-attacks like Stuxnet, regular Mossad assassinations of its nuclear scientists and senior military leaders like Qasem Soleimani by the US, reinforce their suspicions. Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear agreement Tehran signed with the Obama Administration (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) also contributed to a deep and pathological distrust of the West.
This does not justify the treatment Moore-Gilbert received. There is no defence for incarcerating innocent people on trumped up charges for 804 days. It is simply the context for the collapse of relations between Iran and the Western world, where routine proclamations of “Iranian terrorism” only serve to absolve the West of its share of responsibility for the collapse of goodwill between the parties.
At the end of her account, it is still not clear why Kylie Moore-Gilbert was arrested and prosecuted. It is the one central question that remains unanswered from a vivid and inspiring account of survival against injustice.