Last week, it was reported that two British-Australian women and one Australian man were being held by the Iranian authorities, as a result of two separate arrests. It took approximately two days after the initial reports before names were revealed for the couple involved in one of the incidents.
As it turned out, Jolie King and Mark Firkin had been arrested 10 weeks earlier, ostensibly because they had operated a drone without a permit during the Iranian leg of their Australia-to-Britain travel-blogging adventure. The third individual was not identified until Saturday, although reports indicated that the university lecturer had been arrested nearly a year earlier.
Even then, little information emerged about the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Kylie Moore-Gilbert, or the charges that were filed against her. However, a number of state-run news agencies have speculated that she is accused of spying, as she has reportedly received the same 10-year sentence handed down to other dual and foreign nationals like Xiyue Wang.
Mr. Wang, a Chinese-American, is also a professional academic who was in Iran in 2016 to conduct research on 19th century Iran as part of his Princeton graduate studies. There is no indication that he accessed or attempted to access any sensitive materials prior to his arrest, and this not only casts doubt on the veracity of his espionage charges but also highlights a possibly escalating crackdown on scholars.
The lack of progress in the case of Moore-Gilbert is a familiar feature of so-called national security investigations of the Iranian regime, which frequently rely upon forced confessions and manufactured narratives in order to secure convictions.
This tactic is of course deployed against persons who are only Iranian citizens, as well as against dual nationals whose foreign residency affords them no different legal or diplomatic status in Iran. In one example, the journalist and activist Sepideh Gholian provided false confessions last year after authorities beat her and threatened both her and her family over her coverage of workers’ rights protests at the Haft Tapeh sugarcane plant. But after her release, she helped to publicize information about the torture that she and fellow detainees experienced, leading to her being re-arrested and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Despite all this, Gholian reportedly remains under pressure to provide further, more specific confessions. Her ongoing mistreatment is no doubt fueled by persistent efforts to expose the authorities’ tactics. Toward that end, she recently released an audio recording consisting of her own narration and sounds of fellow inmates being tortured near her cell. Gholian says that interrogators have explicitly told her to “sit in front of the camera and say you were deceived” by individuals or institutions that are committed to undermining the Islamic Republic.
By her own account, Gholian has been more resistant to these appeals after her second arrest. But if the authorities were to prevail over her, it would help to strengthen a state media narrative that underlays the targeting of American, European, and Australian passport holders. In many cases, arrest footage and videotaped interrogations of such detainees have been played on the Iranian regime’s official television outlets as part of documentaries purporting to expose an “infiltration network” working toward the “soft overthrow” of the theocratic system.
But no evidence has been presented in the context of actual prosecutions to support the claim that any high-profile detainees were engaged in spying. This may help to explain why some of those individuals remain under such pressure, and why their cases have been virtually invisible to international media for such long periods. The 11 months of silence in the case of Moore-Gilbert’s case apparently stems from Iranian officials insisting to her family and the Australian government that the case would be more quickly resolved if it was not publicly disclosed.
This, too, is a familiar tactic in cases of political imprisonment by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) or the regime’s Ministry of Intelligence. By minimizing international media attention, the authorities can proceed in their often torturous interrogations with little to no scrutiny from foreign governments or human rights defenders. And silence on the part of a prisoner’s family rarely, if ever, leads to a speedy resolution of improved treatment.
Now that Moore-Gilbert’s case has breached international headlines, it is being reported that she previously threatened to begin a hunger strike over poor prison conditions and a lack of progress in her case. Moore-Gilbert is reportedly being held in Ward 2-A of Evin Prison, and she has received very little access to legal counsel during her time there.
Much like with dual citizen Kameel Ahmady, the authorities refused to transfer their British-Australian prisoner even after informing her that the investigation into her unspecified offenses was over. While she remains isolated, her family is said to be putting their faith in international diplomacy as a means of securing her release, but the situation is complicated by Iran’s long history of using hostages as bargaining chips in talks with foreign powers.
Moore-Gilbert’s fellow Australian detainee, Jolie King, was reportedly told during her interrogations that she would continue to be held in hopes of Iran securing a prisoner swap agreement with Australia. There is little clarity about the Australian government’s attitude toward such a proposal, but its recent drift toward closer alignment with US foreign policy would suggest that Canberra shares Washington’s expectation that “maximum pressure” will eventually force the Iranian regime to move away from hostage-taking and other malign behaviors.