Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert has at long last been freed from an Iranian jail in a prisoner swap, after 804 days of detention.
She was arrested in September 2018 in Tehran, where she was attending a conference, on suspicion of espionage.
But Moore-Gilbert’s release does not mark the end of her ordeal. She’s expected to return home to Melbourne soon, where she will face a deluge of media attention and a long journey to recovery.
In a statement released this morning, Moore-Gilbert said she was expecting a “challenging period of adjustment”.
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“It is with bittersweet feelings that I depart your country, despite the injustices which I have been subjected to,” she said. “I came to Iran as a friend and with friendly intentions, and depart Iran with those sentiments not only still intact, but strengthened.”
What awaits Moore-Gilbert?
Moore-Gilbert’s return date has not been announced, but Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said she would have to quarantine once she lands on Australian shores.
University of Sydney trauma expert Hans Pols told Crikey Moore-Gilbert’s recovery would begin when she got home.
“She will need quite some time to get used to being free again,” he said. “She will feel suspicious, and will lack trust in people.”
Peter Greste, an Australian journalist who was jailed in Egypt for 440 days while working for Al Jazeera, told Crikey his own return home was overwhelming. It was rare for detainees to be told they were going to be prematurely released, which could make the adjustment to freedom even harder, he said.
“It’s a bit like Christmas where the whole buildup is part of it, counting down the days,” Greste said. “But if you suddenly wake up one morning and there’s a whole pile of presents in front of your bed, you wonder if it’s real and you’re going to get in trouble for opening them. It takes a while for reality to sink in.”
Greste said he was inundated with media attention, and felt a duty to leverage that attention to campaign for his colleagues who remained in prison.
“The Egyptians tried to take my voice and I was using the prison experience to make my voice have volume and purpose,” he said.
Greste stressed that Moore-Gilbert would need some space, and to be allowed to speak on her terms when she was ready. He said his time in a Cyprus hotel helped as a transition period in adjusting to his freedom.
“One of the hardest things to realise was that life was not normal and I was never going to get that back. Things had changed irrevocably and dramatically … I think that will be one of the great challenges for [Moore-Gilbert], that going back to the way things were simply is not an option.”
What was it like in prison?
Moore-Gilbert reportedly went on hunger strikes to protest her treatment, saying she was denied phone calls and visitors, was allergic to the food and had been treated in hospital several times for her deteriorating physical and psychological health.
Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian spent 544 days in Evin prison — where Moore-Gilbert was held — also on espionage charges. He still has nightmares about his detention, part of which was in solitary confinement in a small room with no furniture and the lights on 24 hours a day.
“I was essentially being starved and lost 40 pounds [18kg] in the first 40 days,” he told Crikey. “My only times out of that cell were to be interrogated … I was always blindfolded in areas where I might see other people.”
The only communication he had with the outside world was short phone calls with his family.
What does her release mean for Australia-Iranian relations?
Local social media channels have reported the three people swapped for Moore-Gilbert were Iranians Saeed Moradi, Mohammad Khazaei and Masoud Sedaghat Zadeh, detained in Thailand since 2012 on terrorism charges. They allegedly planned to bomb Bangkok and assassinate Israeli diplomats there. Officials haven’t confirmed their identities.
Australia and Thailand have a co-operative, friendly relationship, though Middle East expert at Sydney’s Lowy Institute Dr Rodger Shanahan told Crikey the public would likely never know how Australia negotiated the prisoner’s release.
“These kinds of negotiations take a long time to resolve and you never know what kind — if any — of quid pro quo went on,” he said.
The negotiations would have been incredibly lengthy and complex, involving multiple countries, Shanahan said.
While Moore-Gilbert’s release means there’s one less pressure point between Australia and Iran, the government is still working on the release of another prisoner, Dr Meimanat Hosseini-Chavoshi, a dual Iranian-Australian citizen who works at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, who was arrested in 2018 on espionage charges.