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Some supporters of Melbourne academic Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence in Iran, are concerned about the Australian government’s diplomatic tactics to secure her release. By Jonathan Pearlman.

The jailing of Kylie Moore-Gilbert in Iran

Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert.
Credit: Supplied

From her cell inside Ward 2-A of Evin Prison, on the northern outskirts of Tehran, Kylie Moore-Gilbert wrote a letter last September to her Iranian prosecutor asking for a message to be delivered to the Australian embassy. “I am entirely alone in Iran,” she wrote. “I have no friends or family here and in addition to all the pain I have endured here, I feel like I am abandoned and forgotten.”

Two months later, after learning that she had received a 10-year prison sentence on charges of espionage, Dr Moore-Gilbert, a 33-year-old academic who specialises in the politics of the Gulf states, wrote again to the prosecutor to request that, at least, she be transferred to a “normal ward” for prisoners whose verdicts had been delivered.

“I have suffered 14 months in this temporary detention centre without any justifications, and my tolerance for such a game is really low at the moment,” she wrote. “… Mr Vaziri, you told me you would help me. I unfortunately need your help again now.”

These letters from Moore-Gilbert were among 10 obtained and published earlier this year by the Center for Human Rights in Iran. They make for a harrowing read, a chronicle of the academic’s deteriorating mental and physical health and her desperate appeals for help to secure food, medication, books, visits and phone calls.

Moore-Gilbert is still in Ward 2-A, a notorious section of Evin Prison, which is run by the intelligence section of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Her detention conditions have improved in recent months from the lows of last year. It is understood by The Saturday Paper that she met last weekend with Australia’s ambassador in Iran, Lyndall Sachs, at Evin Prison – the pair were separated by glass due to Covid-19 restrictions – and that the Australian embassy in Iran has resumed regular contact with her. She has also had several recent phone calls with her family. She has received books and money transfers and is reportedly in relatively good physical health. But there has been no progress in her case. Her legal appeals have been denied. She is serving a seemingly irrevocable sentence for being a foreign spy – a charge both she and the Australian government deny.

“We do not accept the charges upon which Dr Moore-Gilbert was convicted,” a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) spokesperson told The Saturday Paper. “While we continue to work to secure her release, we are doing everything we can to ensure the conditions of her imprisonment are the best they can be.”

 

An early-career academic, Kylie Moore-Gilbert was already highly regarded in the close-knit circle of Gulf politics experts in Australia and abroad when she travelled to Iran in August 2018 to attend a five-day English-language summer course on Shiite Islam. For academics who focus on the Middle East, attending such courses is unexceptional, although in recent years some have become wary of travelling to Iran because so many foreign academics have been arrested there.

A colleague of Moore-Gilbert sent The Saturday Paper a table they had compiled of foreign academics imprisoned in Iran since 2010: there have been 12, by their count, including two each from the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and France, and one each from Sweden and Russia. Three of these academics remain in detention. One of them is Moore-Gilbert.

The course that Moore-Gilbert attended in Iran was conducted by the University of Religions and Denominations in Qom, a Shiite holy city near Tehran. The university, which was apparently unaware of her arrest, later published a promotional pamphlet that included photographs from the course she attended. In one photograph, Moore-Gilbert appears, wearing a veil and long sleeves, smiling alongside other students. This is the last known image of her. After completing the course, she is believed to have spent several days in Tehran before she was arrested at Tehran airport on September 13, 2018, when she was due to fly back to Australia.

Moore-Gilbert has since spent more than 650 days in Evin Prison.

DFAT said her case was “one of our highest priorities” but has insisted that publicly pressuring Iran could backfire. “We continue to believe that the best way to secure a successful outcome is through diplomatic channels and not through the media,” said a DFAT spokesperson.

Others, such as Peter Greste, an Australian journalist who was imprisoned in Egypt for more than a year, and Jason Rezaian, an Iranian–American journalist who was held at Evin Prison for 544 days, disagree. Greste has called for a “public uproar” to increase pressure on Tehran. Rezaian has repeatedly urged Moore-Gilbert’s family, friends, colleagues and the Australian public to strongly protest so that Iranian authorities realise “this person matters”.

Those close to Moore-Gilbert have, until now, largely remained silent. But, increasingly, some believe the government’s approach is failing.

“There is growing disquiet among Kylie’s colleagues in relation to DFAT’s request for silence,” one of her colleagues, who did not want to be named, told The Saturday Paper. “There is a sense that the strategy has failed and that the Australian government is not doing all it can do to get her released.” Aside from this colleague, all other Australian associates of Moore-Gilbert whom I spoke to refused to discuss her case.

 

Since she finished high school in 2005 – as dux of her year at All Saints College in Bathurst – Moore-Gilbert has spent a large amount of time overseas. In an interview in 2017 for a program on the Middle East broadcast by Melbourne community TV channel C31, Moore-Gilbert said she grew interested in the region while backpacking around the world for several years after high school.

“This was pre-Arab Spring,” she said. “The Middle East was a little bit more stable than it is today, so I had the opportunity to visit a lot of states which perhaps might be a bit dangerous today, like Syria, for example.”

In 2010, Moore-Gilbert, who holds both British and Australian passports, began a degree in Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Cambridge University, eventually graduating with first-class honours. During her studies, she became fluent in Arabic and travelled extensively across the Middle East.

In 2011, she was travelling through the Gulf when the Arab Spring protests sparked an uprising in Bahrain. She was surprised to see Bahraini supporters draped with flags on the streets of Dubai: in the tightly controlled Gulf states, such protests and public displays of dissent are unusual. Moore-Gilbert became interested in the politics of the Gulf, and eventually completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne on the Bahraini uprising, focusing on the use of social media by Shiite activists against the Sunni dynasty that has ruled the country since the 18th century. In January 2018, just months after completing her thesis, she was appointed a lecturer in Islamic studies at the Asia Institute at Melbourne University.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, an expert on the Gulf at Rice University in Houston, met Moore-Gilbert at a conference in Melbourne in 2016 and was later an examiner of her doctoral thesis. He told The Saturday Paper that her research “made a real contribution to understanding why some Shiite mobilised in Bahrain and why some didn’t”, adding that she had conducted extensive fieldwork in the Middle East and was “very aware of the risks of working in authoritarian states”.

Ulrichsen says he does not believe Moore-Gilbert could be a spy. “She was an academic researcher doing research for strict academic purposes. Nothing about Kylie would have suggested that she was anything else than a bright, thoroughly committed researcher. She had been published, well received. She had a lot going for her and hopefully still does.”

 

News of Moore-Gilbert’s imprisonment did not emerge until 12 months after her arrest, when DFAT confirmed a report in British newspaper The Times that three Australians were being held in Iran. The other Australians were Jolie King and Mark Firkin, a pair of travel bloggers who were accused of being spies after they used a drone to take photographs near military installations outside Tehran. They were released in October 2019, after almost three months in Evin Prison.

The release was apparently secured in exchange for Australia’s release of Reza Dehbashi Kivi, an Iranian who was detained in Australia for 13 months. Kivi had been researching skin cancer detection at the University of Queensland but faced extradition to the US over claims he exported American military equipment to Iran in 2008. The Australian government refused to confirm that there had been a prisoner swap, although such deals have been commonly used in recent years to secure the release of detainees across the Middle East.

Announcing the release of King and Firkin, Australia’s Foreign minister, Marise Payne, distinguished their case from Moore-Gilbert’s, which she said was “very complex”. “Each case of an Australian unfortunately detained overseas is different and requires a specific and a particular response,” Payne told reporters.

But the swap has raised concern among some of Moore-Gilbert’s supporters about whether Australia too readily gave up its best hope of securing her release.

Following the election of Donald Trump, relations between Iran and the US, which have been strained for decades, further deteriorated, particularly after Washington abandoned the Iran nuclear deal and tightened sanctions. In October 2018, shortly after Moore-Gilbert was detained, Scott Morrison appeared to back the US president, saying he would review Australia’s approach to the nuclear deal. Two months later, however, Morrison announced he supported the nuclear deal after the review concluded it had enabled oversight of Iran’s nuclear program.

But Australia’s ties with Iran underwent a further test last August after Morrison announced Australia would back a US-led mission to allow freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz. Only eight or so countries joined the mission, including Britain, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

It is not clear whether these strains were a factor in Moore-Gilbert’s prison sentence or worsened her fate. Relations between Australia and Iran have historically been relatively stable. Both kept embassies in each other’s countries through the 1979 revolution in Iran, and maintained contacts despite the turbulence in the region in the past two decades. DFAT said Payne has repeatedly raised Moore-Gilbert’s case with Iran’s Foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Tehran denied Canberra’s claims that the pair discussed Moore-Gilbert’s detention when they met on the sidelines of a conference in India in January this year.

Middle East experts believe Kylie Moore-Gilbert’s arrest may have been sparked by her conducting research during her trip that raised the suspicions of someone she interviewed, who may have, in turn, alerted Iranian authorities.

Marc Owen Jones, an expert on Bahraini politics at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar, has never met Moore-Gilbert in person but was in regular contact with her on Facebook and was a reviewer of one of her journal articles. He said her scholarship on the Bahrain uprising in 2011 – which the Bahraini rulers suggested was orchestrated by Iran – was “very balanced and didn’t strike me as controversial”.

“I was very surprised when she was arrested – she was not someone who would raise any eyebrows,” Owen Jones told The Saturday Paper. “It was an official trip [to Iran], which makes it odd. She could have spoken to someone and asked a question which might have made someone suspicious. Academics go to places and do research – and you don’t always know who you are speaking to.”

Ulrichsen agreed, saying Moore-Gilbert may have asked a question that “sent the wrong signal”. “It is impossible to know why she had been arrested or if they wanted hostages or pawns from the recipient state,” he said.

He added: “It seems as if the [Australian] government prefers diplomatic attempts and want to try to keep it quiet or avoid embarrassment if they can’t produce results. It hasn’t worked in other cases. I don’t know why it would work now.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 27, 2020 as "Prison pleas".

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Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.