Australian academic jailed in Iran pleads for help

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Friends of a British-Australian academic taken prisoner by Iran on spying charges launched a public campaign to win her freedom Thursday, saying that Australia’s strategy of quiet diplomacy had failed.

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

“Free Kylie”: the movement to free academic held prisoner in Iran 

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

Read more: Iran will avenge Soleimani death and strike blow to US: Tehran

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“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.

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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.

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

It is believed she was reported by a conference delegate or someone interviewed for her research, which focused on the Gulf — in particular Bahrain, a crucible for competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Hunger strikes to force Iran to release prisoner 

“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, clearly distraught, she sought some kind of salvation.

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.

Read more: UN says Iran must overturn three death sentences

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.

Iran’s complex political and judicial system — which sees hardliners, reformists and myriad state institutions vying for influence — can make things more complex still. There is little room for dissent in this system. ‘Westerners’ are specially looked on suspiciously and are under threat of being met with scrutiny.

Will there be a prisoner swap to free Kylie?

“Even though the situation is sensitive, there are avenues Australia can pursue on behalf of Kylie,” said her friend and colleague Jessie Moritiz, suggesting the US may be able to help facilitate a prisoner swap. However, with the declining relationship between the USA and Iran it is hard to say how effective this suggestion is.

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. Washington, under the Trump administration, has not shown much keenness towards providing any relief in the form of lifting trade sanctions. This has led to cold relations between the two already imbittered countries.

More recently, Iran vowed reprisals for the US assassination of Qasem Soleimani, who masterminded paramilitary operations in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Qasem Soleimani was more than an average military head in the Iranian army. Qasem was responsible for most of the operations against Saudi-Arabia, a close ally of the US in the region. His death was a major blow to the Iranian regime.

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.

AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk

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