Kylie Moore-Gilbert has enough money to buy food and water inside Iran’s notorious Qarchak prison, but is closely surveilled everywhere she goes, sources inside the jail say.
Fellow prisoners report that the British Australian academic appears to have so far escaped infection in the wave of Covid-19 sweeping through the prison, but that her communications with the outside world are strictly proscribed, according to Roya Boroumand, executive director of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center (ABC) for Human Rights in Iran.
“The reason we have trouble getting information from Kylie is that the authorities have mandated two prisoners to follow her everywhere, to report if any prisoners talk to her. But we have some information from people inside that she has enough money on her prison card to be able to buy food and water,” Boroumand told the Guardian.
Conditions are harsh inside the isolated Qarchak prison: rations have been cut to a quarter of pre-pandemic levels, the prison’s sewerage system regularly overflows, and the water designated for drinking is often contaminated and frequently cuts out.
Little has been heard from the Cambridge-educated Middle East expert since she was arrested more than 700 days ago.
Letters smuggled out of prison have begged for help, saying she feels “like I am abandoned and forgotten”, and in a rare phone call said she couldn’t eat anything in Qarchack: “I feel so very hopeless … I am so depressed.” Australia’s ambassador visited her last month.
Moore-Gilbert, sentenced to 10 years’ prison in a secret trial on espionage charges rejected by Australia as baseless, was last month moved from Tehran’s Evin prison to Qarchak women’s prison, regarded as one of the most hostile prisons in Iran.
Qarchak is mainly used to incarcerate drug offenders, but political prisoners are often sent to the desert prison as punishment. The US state department says the prison is host to “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognised human rights”.
A new report by the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran – warning of the Covid-19 risk inside Iran’s prison – has detailed Qarchak’s conditions.
“Every day, Qarchak’s sewer system overflows into the wards’ courtyards, filling the grounds with a terrible stench that draws in swarms of insects. Prison authorities have long been aware of the problem.
“The prison’s water is salty, resulting in hair and skin problems for incarcerated people who have no choice but to shower in it. In the summer, the source of this salty water is sometimes cut off. The purportedly drinkable water – which has an odour of sewage – comes from a different source that is also cut off periodically in the summer … prisoners must buy bottled water from the prison store at a steep mark-up.”
At least 30 prisoners in Qarchak have contracted Covid-19; they are being held in a converted supervision ward, now a makeshift quarantine centre.
Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, has conceded Moore-Gilbert faces an “impossibly difficult” situation and that her case was a top priority for the Australian government.
“She is in very difficult circumstances – she is arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced on charges we don’t accept,” Payne said.
“We have been very clear about that and we will continue to seek her release from Iranian authorities.”
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has consistently urged a process of quiet diplomacy to help free Moore-Gilbert.
“We believe the best chance of resolving Dr Moore-Gilbert’s case lies through the diplomatic path and not through the media,” a spokesman said.
But Boroumand said a more forceful approach was needed from Australia, arguing that quiet diplomacy had failed to put any pressure on the Iranian government.
“Public opinion matters for any government including the government of Iran … and so now is the time for public pressure: behind the scenes has only gotten Kylie 10 years and Qarchak.
“I think people should remember that for diplomats it’s easy to be patient, but every day that passes, the food, the water, the environment, is damaging for Kylie physically and psychologically. This is not going to be recoverable as time passes. Leaving her in there is not benign.”
Friends and colleagues of Moore-Gilbert’s have also begun speaking out on her behalf, publicly campaigning for a more assertive government response to Iran.
“We are growing increasingly concerned that the Australian government has accepted Kylie’s incarceration in Qarchak prison, the ‘worst women’s prison in the world’ as her new normal,” the Free Kylie Moore-Gilbert group said in a statement.
“Its current strategy has failed even to protect the most fundamental rights of this Australian citizen abroad,” it added.
At the outset of the global Covid-19 pandemic, Iran’s judiciary ordered massive prisoner furloughs to de-crowd prisons, disinfection regimes and separation of prisoner groups, aware of the potential for the coronavirus to spread unchecked inside Iran’s overcrowded prisons.
But, Boroumand said, as the pandemic has run on for months, and prisoners have been returned from furloughs, efforts to protect those held in prisons have been abandoned, “putting prisoners’ health and lives at risk”.
“Prison officials have not received the resources necessary to fight Covid-19 and adequately protect prisoners,” a new ABC centre report said.
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.
She was convicted of espionage following a secret trial and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
No evidence of Moore-Gilbert’s alleged crimes has ever been publicly presented. She has denied the allegations against her.