Kylie Moore-Gilbert was tearful, terrified and unwell inside Qarchak women’s prison before she was forcibly moved from quarantine into the general prison population, sources inside the jail have said.
Details of Moore-Gilbert’s condition emerged as friends and colleagues publicly condemned the Australian government’s “quiet diplomacy” strategy, which they argue has failed to help her.
The British-Australian academic, who is nearly two years into a 10-year sentence in Iran for espionage, was suddenly moved from Tehran’s Evin prison to Qarchak, a desert facility 35km south-east of the capital, at the weekend.
The Guardian has heard a recording of Moore-Gilbert’s voice from Qarchak, where, speaking Persian, she says: “I can’t eat anything. I feel so very hopeless… I am so depressed.”
The recording has been verified with colleagues of Moore-Gilbert’s.
While Moore-Gilbert was initially placed in Qarchak’s quarantine section – a week-long Covid-19 precaution for all new inmates – she was moved after two days into the general prison population, sources say, to further cut off her access to the outside world.
“Before she was moved Kylie was trying to seek help from her cellmate to write a letter to Australian ambassador to Iran to visit her urgently,” her cellmate in the quarantine section said in a message smuggled out of the prison.
Moore-Gilbert was physically ill while she was held in the quarantine section.
“After one meal she became sick. Kylie was terrified of the officers … she left me in tears and anxious,” the source said.
Arrested in Tehran in September 2018, Moore-Gilbert was convicted in a secret trial and sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of espionage. An appeal failed and a request for re-examination by the supreme court was rejected.
No evidence of Moore-Gilbert’s alleged crimes has ever been publicly presented. She has denied the allegations against her, and the Australian government rejects them as baseless and politically motivated.
Isolated and overcrowded, Qarchak has a reputation as one of the most hostile prisons in Iran. Last month, the US state department listed Qarchak as an entity responsible for “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognised human rights”.
In a phone call with Reza Khandan, the husband of jailed human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, Moore-Gilbert said she felt hopeless and isolated. The Guardian has heard a recording of the call.
“I don’t have any phone card to call,” she says in Persian. “I’ve asked the prison officers but they didn’t give me a phone card. I [was last able to] call my parents about one month ago.”
Another source in Qarchak said the prison was violent, with regular outbreaks of transmissible diseases. Prisoners are regularly strip-searched when being moved, they said.
“The political prisoners are the most vulnerable detainees in Qarchak. This prison has been engineered to strip from you your identity and dignity.”
A source in Tehran with knowledge of Moore-Gilbert’s case said she was moved to Qarchak after talks between the Australian and Iranian governments over Moore-Gilbert’s conviction and incarceration were unable to reach agreement.
In addition, the Guardian understands a formal request was made on Moore-Gilbert’s behalf to temporarily release her from prison because of concerns over the potential spread of Covid-19 through the jail.
While more than 100,000 prisoners were furloughed by the Iranian government out of concerns over the coronavirus, including high-profile foreign national political prisoners, Moore-Gilbert’s release was refused.
A spokesman for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Dfat) said Moore-Gilbert’s case was “one of the Australian government’s highest priorities”.
“We are urgently seeking further consular access to her at this new location. We hold Iran responsible for Dr Moore-Gilbert’s safety and well-being.”
Dfat has consistently maintained a strategy of quiet diplomacy with Tehran, insisting the “best way to secure a successful outcome is through diplomatic channels and not through the media”.
In Australia, friends and colleagues, who have stayed silent in the hope Moore-Gilbert’s release could be quietly secured, are speaking out on her behalf.
Dr Dara Conduit, research fellow at Deakin University, said “quiet diplomacy has failed”.
“Kylie has spent nearly two years in prison, and has been treated worse than any other foreign national currently held in prison in Iran, despite Australia and Iran having enjoyed an unusually strong relationship over the course of many decades.”
Conduit said Australia’s diplomatic efforts had won it little leverage over Moore-Gilbert’s case so far.
“Kylie’s situation has gone from bad to worse. We cannot forget that she has committed no crime.”
Dr Jessie Moritz from the Australian National University told the ABC “the softly-softly approaches unfortunately not working. It’s not protecting her. It should have prevented a transfer like this [to Qarchak]”.
Elaine Pearson, Australia director of Human Rights Watch, said Moore-Gilbert’s forcible transfer to Qarchak was “extremely problematic” because of its isolation and poor conditions.
“The Australian government should be pressing for Kylie’s release or furlough on humanitarian grounds, especially since we know the Iranian authorities have done this for other foreign political prisoners in Iran.
“At the very least, the Australian government should press for Kylie’s transfer back to Evin on the basis of hygiene standards but out of the high security ward, and ensure she has the ability to contact her family and others.”
Cambridge-educated Moore-Gilbert, a lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, was arrested in September 2018 after attending an academic conference, at which she was invited to speak, in Qom.
Fellow conference delegates and an interview subject for her academic work flagged her as “suspicious” to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who arrested her at Tehran airport as she prepared to fly out of the country.