LONDON – A British-Australian academic serving a 10-year sentence in Iran for espionage has been transferred to a remote prison in southern Tehran that human rights activists say is riddled with cases of coronavirus, raising further concern. about his deteriorating health.
The academic, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a Cambridge-educated professor of Islamic studies at the University of Melbourne, was arrested in 2018 at the Tehran airport while trying to leave Iran after a conference. Her arrest was publicly confirmed a year later by Australian authorities.
Ms. Moore-Gilbert has strongly denounced the charges and maintains her innocence. She was tried in secret and had been detained for the past two years in Evin prison in Tehran, where her friends say they often forced her to sleep on the ground and sent her to solitary confinement.
She was transferred to Qarchak, a notorious and isolated women’s detention center southeast of the capital, on Friday, according to Reza Khandan, an Iranian rights activist who said she spoke by phone with Ms. Moore-Gilbert.
“I can’t eat anything,” said Moore-Gilbert, according to Mr. Khandan, who wrote about the conversation on Facebook. “I don’t know, I’m so disappointed,” he quoted her saying. “I’m very depressed”.
Scores of women detained in Qarchak prison have reportedly been infected with the coronavirus in recent months, according to human rights activists and family members of prisoners. Inmates at the prison have described a lack of accessible drinking water, inedible meals, overcrowding, and insufficient access to medical treatment.
The State Department included the prison in a list of entities that it considers responsible “for extrajudicial executions, torture or other serious internationally recognized violations of human rights.”
“He is known for excruciating conditions, including regular assaults and inappropriate behavior by prison guards towards women,” the State Department said in a statement released in December.
“It is not a positive sign to move it there,” said Sanam Vakil, an Iran researcher at Chatham House, a London-based research institute for international affairs. “They are looking to further isolate it, put more pressure on the Australian government for whatever they are looking to get,” he added, referring to Ms. Moore-Gilbert. “The big question remains, what do you want?”
Iran has jailed dozens of foreign academics and dual citizens on espionage or national security charges in recent years, and some of them have been used as a bargaining chip to obtain the repatriation of Iranian citizens detained abroad. A French academic was released in March as part of a prisoner exchange.
Moore-Gilbert was in Evin prison for almost two years alongside Fariba Adelkhah, a renowned Franco-Iranian scholar who was sentenced to six years in prison on May on national security charges.
A British-Iranian prisoner whose case has made international news, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, was also detained in Evin, but was temporarily released in May.
It is unusual for foreigners to be incarcerated in Qarchak prison, and the reason for the transfer is unclear. But the move raised new concerns about Ms. Moore-Gilbert’s mental and physical health.
Ana-Diamond Aaba Atach, a Finnish-Iranian dual citizen who was imprisoned at Evin for eight months in 2016, speculated that Ms. Moore-Gilbert’s transfer allowed the Iranian authorities to show how they could keep a steady hand in highly publicized cases. .
“The prisoners describe Evin as a hotel compared to Qarchak,” said Aaba Atach. “And Evin is a horrible place.”
Qarchak inmates have said in testimonies collected by the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran that the facility did not have enough bathrooms or beds, and that some inmates were denied medical treatment due to their alleged crimes.
They also said that the food is barely edible and that they had to buy expensive bottled water because the water they were given was too salty to be drinkable.
The coronavirus pandemic has worsened detention conditions in overcrowded prisons in Iran. Some 85,000 inmates were released in March in an effort to combat the spread of the virus.
“Prisons were a major concern in Iran in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak,” said Ms. Vakil of Chatham House. “Since then, we have never known things again.”
However, thousands more still behind bars have staged protests in recent months, saying they are not being protected from the coronavirus. Amnesty International said in April that some 36 prisoners were feared to have been killed by security forces in an effort to control the protests.
United Nations experts have urged the Iranian authorities to release more dual citizens like Ms. Moore-Gilbert.
In letters smuggled out of Evin in 2019 and published by the British media in January, Moore-Gilbert said she felt “abandoned and forgotten” and described how her health “deteriorated significantly.”
He accused the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which manages the prison room where he was detained, of “playing a horrible game with me.”
And she again proclaimed her innocence.
“I am not a spy,” he wrote. “I have never been a spy, and I have no interest in working for a spy organization in any country.”