This week, two university professors — Kylie Moore-Gilbert of Australia’s University of Melbourne and Fariba Adelkhah of France’s Sciences Po university — announced in an open letter smuggled from Evin Prison that they would begin a “a joint hunger strike in the name of academic freedom” on Christmas Eve. The pair say they have been denied their most basic human rights and have been subjected to psychological torture.
“We are striking not only to demand our immediate freedom, but to ask for justice for the countless, thousands, unnamed yet not forgotten men and women who have suffered the same fate as ours or worse, and have been imprisoned in Iran, having committed no crime,” they wrote.
It would be a damning injustice to callously ignore their cries for help. Yet several governments with nationals detained in Iran seem to be doing very little to win the freedom of their kidnapped citizens.
Earlier this month, the U.S. government was able to secure the release of Xiyue Wang, a Princeton University researcher who had been held in Iran since 2016. But several other Americans — along with citizens of the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Sweden and Austria — remain behind bars. And those are the ones we know about. The chances for releases in most of these cases look bleak and would only be possible with the intervention of their home governments.
Over the weekend, authorities in Tehran announced updates to two of the cases.
Moore-Gilbert, who was in Iran doing academic research on a valid visa and had apparently been invited to guest-lecture at a university there, was convicted earlier this year on a 10-year sentence for spying. As is the norm in cases of foreign nationals accused by the Islamic republic of national security offenses, there was no public trial, no evidence and no due process. To those of us who follow Iran’s hostage-taking habit, it was unsurprising when her appeal was rejected over the weekend.
In addition to her joint letter with Adelkhah, Moore-Gilbert sent out another message directly to Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison.
“I have undertaken 5 hunger strikes as my only means to raise my voice, but to no avail,” she wrote. “I beg of you, Prime Minister Morrison, to take immediate action, as my physical and mental health continues to deteriorate with every additional day that I remain imprisoned in these conditions.”
Moore-Gilbert is being held in section 2A of Evin Prison — the section run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and the only part of the prison to which other branches of government cannot demand access. It is Iran’s equivalent of what we would refer to as a black site, and it’s where I spent the entirety of my 544 days imprisoned.
All contact with the outside world is tightly controlled. Isolation from human contact and information are the defining characteristics of the experience. Foreign nationals are routinely held there, but once a verdict is handed down by the Revolutionary Court, they are usually moved to the general ward. That has not happened in Moore-Gilbert’s case.
“Make sure this does not go unnoticed,” she told the individual who smuggled out the letter on her behalf.
Iran’s decision to deny her appeal should be the clearest indication yet that she is a political prisoner — like so many who have come before her. One of those others who is still behind bars in Evin is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British citizenwho has been held for nearly four years after she returned to Iran to visit her parents with her 2-year-old daughter, Gabriella. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was charged with attempting the “soft overthrow” of the Islamic republic — a charge as ridiculous as it sounds.
On Sunday, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s lawyer said his client’s request for an early release for good behavior — a common practice in Iran once a convict has served a third of their sentence — had been denied. Again, this is par for the course for the Islamic republic’s hostages.
Last month I paid a visit to Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s home. She, of course, was absent. Instead, I spent the evening with her husband, Richard, and Gabriella, now 5. This child, who has already endured so much, has no memories of being with both her parents.
To me, this little girl symbolizes just how sinister Iran’s hostage-taking is. As Western leaders calculate the costs of negotiating the releases of their innocent citizens held in Tehran, I hope Moore-Gilbert’s words ring in their ears and they see Gabriella’s face when they close their eyes. Continuing to ignore them is no longer an option.
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