Members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard attempted to recruit Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert as a spy “many times” during the more than two years she spent as a prisoner in the country, offering to free her if she “made a deal” with the regime, she has claimed.
In a tell-all interview on Tuesday night about the 804 days she spent locked up inside Iran’s notorious Evin prison, Moore-Gilbert said she rejected repeated attempts by guards to get her to agree to spy for Iran in exchange for her release.
Moore-Gilbert told Sky News she suspected the Iranians had wanted to “have their cake and eat it too” – receiving something from Australia through a diplomatic solution to her incarceration while also using her status as an academic to spy for Iran.
“I knew the reason they didn’t engage in any meaningful negotiations with the Australians was because they wanted to recruit me,” she said.
“They wanted me to work for them as a spy [and said] that if I cooperated with them and agreed to become a spy for them they would free me … that I could win my freedom [and] make a deal with them.”
A British-Australian dual citizen, Moore-Gilbert, educated at Cambridge and a lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, was arrested in Tehran in September 2018 as she prepared to board a flight out of the country after attending an academic conference in Qom.
She was sent to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, held by the Revolutionary Guards in the secretive Ward 2A, and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment on espionage charges in a secret trial. The Iranian government claimed she was a spy working for Israel, the country of her estranged husband’s nationality.
In her first sit-down interview following her release in November 2020 in a prisoner swap involving Australia, Iran, Israel and Thailand, Moore-Gilbert revealed she had pushed for her story to be leaked to the media months before it first made headlines several months after she was arrested.
Saying she was “not convinced the quiet diplomacy case stacks up”, Moore-Gilbert revealed she had asked her family to go public in one of the few brief phone calls she was granted inside the prison, but that it was “kept quiet”.
“I knew it was deliberately being kept out of the media against my wishes and from the first six weeks to two months I’d been … demanding to my family they go to the media,” she said.
“I’ve been told the media knew about my incarceration but [were] told by the government to keep it quiet ... because the line being run by the government was they were trying to find a diplomatic solution behind the scenes with Iran.
“I took a very different view of the situation based on my own experiences being inside there, but that was the view of the government, and the media played ball for months at the beginning.”
In the interview, Moore-Gilbert spoke at length about the devastating psychological toll her time in the prison took on her mental health and, in particular, the first four weeks spent in solitary confinement.
She spoke about the “psychological torture” of being inside the small two-by-two metre cell, with lights on 24 hours a day and a “static sound” coming from the phone in the cell that she could use to call guards.
“After the two-week mark I was flipping out, I’d completely lost it, I’d lost the plot, I was completely crazy,” she said.
“At first I couldn’t eat anything and I couldn’t sleep. My emotional state was so volatile, I was so anxious, my heart beating was always beating heavily, I was basically having a prolonged anxiety attack or panic attack.”
After an initial period of daily interrogations, she said she would go stretches “when I was just alone in this room, locked in this room 23 hours a day with nothing to do, so I was by the end of it a crazy lady.”
Moore-Gilbert consistently denied the charges against her, the Australian government dismissed them as “baseless”, and no evidence has ever been publicly presented of her alleged crimes.
“I am an innocent woman,” Moore-Gilbert wrote in a letter smuggled out of prison last year, “imprisoned for a crime I have not committed and for which there is no real evidence.”
She again denied the charges during her Sky News interview on Tuesday, calling it “ridiculous”. The academic said she drew strength from the anger she felt being imprisoned on false charges.
That anger pushed her to “fight back” and “break the rules”. She estimated she went on seven hunger strikes during her incarceration and was beaten once after a doctor she had slipped a note to “betrayed” her and showed it to guards.
She also revealed that on one occasion she managed to scale the fence of her exercise yard and climb onto the roof of the prison where she considered trying to escape.
“I did contemplate [escaping] when I was up there because it took them 20 minutes to find me. [But] where would I have gone? What would I have done?” she said.
“I didn’t speak the language, I was in a prison uniform … without someone on the outside to help me … I don’t know what I would have done.”
Moore-Gilbert was released in exchange for the freedom of three convicted terrorists. The men were involved in a calamitous bombing attack in Bangkok in February 2012 that aimed to kill Israeli diplomats but succeeded only in blowing up their own rented apartment and injuring five people. All three were in prison in Thailand.
Iranian state media showed footage of the three men receiving garlands of flowers, draped in the national flag, on their return to Iran.