Thought to be the only non-Iranian dual-national currently imprisoned by the Iranian government, Kylie Moore-Gilbert has been Iranian custody since 2019. Moore-Gilbert, a British-Australian citizen, was a lecturer in Islamic studies at Melbourne University, where she specialized in politics, authoritarianism and popular movements in the Arab Gulf region. She was detained while traveling in Iran under accusations of espionage without any public disclosure of evidence for her alleged crimes. The Australian government described her detention as baseless and politically-motivated, which goes along with human rights advocates accusing Iran of routinely arresting innocent foreign nationals and holding them hostage for political purposes.

Multiple reports of mistreatment and abuse surfaced during the first two years of Moore-Gilbert’s 10-year sentence at Iran’s Evin Prison. Moore-Gilbert was beaten by prison guards after forming a prison choir as an act of resistance to her detention. Sources also stated that Moore-Gilbert received treatment for injuries on her arms, along with severe bruising across her entire body. The husband of recently-freed Iranian detainee Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe alleged that Moore-Gilbert was held in solitary confinement “at a level of abuse that’s beyond egregious.” 

While held in Evin, Moore-Gilbert was offered her release on the condition that she would work as a spy for the terrorist Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Letters reveal that Moore-Gilbert furiously denied the offer, writing, “I am not a spy. I have never been a spy and I have no interest to work for a spying organization in any country. When I leave Iran, I want to be a free woman and live a free life, not under the shadow of extortion and threats.”

In July 2020, Moore-Gilbert’s situation became even more dire as she was transferred to Iran’s notorious Qarchak Prison for women, which the U.S. State Department describes as an institution responsible for extrajudicial killings and torture. Human rights groups have detailed the prison’s deplorable conditions including overflows of raw sewage, inedible food and undrinkable water. Additionally, as Iran maintains its status as one of the most COVID-19-stricken nations in the world, sources have claimed that Qarchak regularly has disease outbreaks. Moore-Gilbert reportedly was at one point extremely physically ill, with a fellow prisoner saying, “after one meal she became sick. Kylie was terrified of the officers… she left me in tears and anxious. In a publicized recording, an exasperated Kylie can be heard saying, “I can’t eat anything. I feel so very hopeless… I am so depressed.”

News of political hostage-taking has become a familiar occurrence in the West in recent years, especially in America. Most recently, Americans were subject to the dramatic and tragic story of Otto Warmbier. In January of 2016, Warmbier was detained by North Korean officials for allegedly stealing a poster in his hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea and was subsequently sentenced to 15 years of physical labor. Images and videos of distraught and pale Warmbier, accompanied by public outcry, brought the Trump administration’s attention to the case, eventually ending with Warmbier’s release on humanitarian grounds.

Horrifically, Warmbier was released in a comatose state and subsequently died. Officials claimed that he had suffered from a case of botulism despite extensive evidence that he was a subject of beatings or torture. Warmbier’s father, Fred Warmbier, said in a declaration to a U.S. federal court, “it is unbelievable to me that North Korea would send Otto home as a vegetable, with scars on his body and crooked teeth.”

As with Warmbier’s case, Moore-Gilbert’s detention is completely baseless. Authoritarian regimes like those of North Korea and Iran continue to use the lives of innocent free-world citizens as pawns for political gain, often torturing their victims psychologically and physically, and in Warmbier’s case, signing their death sentence. As Australia’s relationship with Iran becomes more strained, especially due to Australia’s troop commitment to the U.S. coalition in Iraq, the Australian government’s quiet diplomatic approach to securing Moore-Gilbert’s freedom has resoundingly failed.

Moore-Gilbert’s case is of particular concern as her imprisonment represents an increasingly hostile environment for researchers and academics with focuses on authoritarianism. The world must hear her plea for help, “I am entirely alone in Iran. 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.”

Kareem Rifai can be reached at krifai@umich.edu.

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