The daughter of an Iranian-British retired engineer jailed in Evin Prison has accused Iranian officials of violating their duties as Muslims. “If you claim to be Muslims, how can you sleep at night when you arrest innocent people who have not committed any crime?” she says.
In an interview with IranWire, she renewed calls for the international community to do more to release foreign and dual nationals held in Iranian prisons.
On August 19, IranWire released Maziar Bahari’s The Treacherous Host, a documentary about what Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese information and communications technology expert with US residency, endured over four years in an Iranian jail.
Elika Ashoori, whose father Anoosheh Ashoori is being held on charges of spying for the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, says when she saw The Treacherous Host she felt renewed frustration that international human rights organizations and governments around the globe do not do enough, including reporting regularly on the situation of dual nationals who have been unjustly imprisoned in Iran.
In 2015, Nizar Zakka was personally invited to Iran by Shahindokht Molaverdi, who was at the time President Hassan Rouhani’s Vice President for Women and Family Affairs, to participate in the second annual “International Conference on the Role of Women in Sustainable Development.” While in Iran, Zakka was arrested on the charge of “spying for the enemy government of America.” He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a $4.2 million fine on September 20, 2016, after a year in detention.
Zakka was released after serving four years of his sentence.
“Why there are so few warnings against traveling to Iran?” asks Elika Ashoori, whose father is in a situation similar to that of Zakka. “Before my father was arrested, I did not know that one must not travel to Iran. I did not know that there are so many innocent prisoners in Iran.”
Sixty-six-year-old Anoosheh Ashoori is a retired engineer who had emigrated from Iran to the UK when he was a young man. Until his arrest in August 2017, he, his wife, his daughter and his son had traveled to Iran numerous times and never encountered any problems. But on his last visit to the country of his birth, he was arrested and charged with spying for Mossad. A Revolutionary Court sentenced him to 10 years in prison and a fine of £29,850. He is currently serving his sentence at Evin Prison.
IranWire spoke to Elika Ashoori about her father’s arrest and the abuses he has suffered while incarcerated.
In the documentary, Nizar Zakka talks about enduring torture such as having to stand for long hours. Was your father subjected to psychological and physical torture during interrogations as well?
According to my father, he was not physically tortured but he was subjected to intense psychological torture. Or perhaps he was tortured physically but does not want to talk about it in order to spare us the pain. My father says that during the interrogations, when he was not allowed to call the family, he was told that his wife had left him. The also told him, “our agents went to your daughter and talked to her. We know what kinds of pastry she likes, but the next time they go there, they will not be so kind.” In other words, they were threatening our lives to intimidate him.
Once my father went on a hunger strike because he was being pressured to make confessions. They threatened him that if he went on with his hunger strike they would send him to the cell where Somalian prisoners were kept. It was rumored that if a Shia inmate was transferred to the same cell as the Sunni Somalians he would not survive more than a couple of nights. All these threats, plus the four months he spent in solitary confinement, where he was interrogated for long hours, drove him to entertain the idea of ending his own life.
Why did it take such a long time for your father’s arrest to become public?
At first, when we contacted the British Foreign Office they were adamant that we must not make the news public and we did not. They told us that there is a better chance of my father’s release if we do not tell the media about it because Iran does not like negative press. They said that past experience showed that silence is more helpful in securing the release of prisoners in Iran.
Eventually, however, it was Iran itself that broke the news of my father’s arrest. At this juncture, we started talking because we did not want our father to be portrayed in a bad way. But, to be honest, neither before my father’s arrest became public nor afterward, has the British government provided us with any help. They argue that the government of Iran does not recognize dual nationality and the British government’s hands are tied in helping my father or people like him. Finally, we decided that it was better for our father that we did talk about him. At the very least, each time that we talk about him, our imprisoned father is given some little hope that he has not been forgotten.
Did any member of the family travel to Iran after your father was arrested?
They had told my father that if any member of his family sets foot in Iran he or she would be charged with espionage the same way that they had charged him. My father told us this on the phone and because of it they punished him and put him in solitary confinement for two weeks.
What is your father’s job?
My father had retired a few years before his last trip to Iran. He was a construction engineer and had a private company that manufactured a product called Roofix to make buildings resistant to earthquakes. As it happens, he had helped many earthquake-damaged areas in Iran with the product. But my father never had any government job and was never politically active. He just did not like politics and we never had any dealings with British officials.
Before his arrest, we had accompanied him to Iran many times to visit the family and for recreation. To be honest, we never imagined that by traveling to Iran we would get into any trouble. My father visited Iran two or three times a year and the last time he went to Tehran to care for my grandmother, who had undergone knee surgery. I had planned to travel to Tehran five months after my father.
What evidence did they have in your father’s case to support the charge of espionage?
They hacked my father’s laptop but failed to find any evidence to support the charge. And he himself never made any such confession. The case file says that “he qualifies as a spy” but it does not say on what evidence. In other words, they sentenced my father to 10 years in prison based on conjecture. Of course, I must add that they proposed to my father that he cooperate with them. And my father told us he prefers to remain in prison than to become a government spy.
Was any property of your father seized when he was arrested or afterwards?
Yes, they seized his passport, his wedding ring and the 30 pounds in his jacket that he wanted to use to pay the taxi after returning to London. Some time ago we asked for his property to be returned and my father sent my grandmother to get them back but she was told that they had lost them.
How is your father doing physically? Is he suffering from any specific ailment?
In addition to consistent pain in his knees, he suffers from toothache and gum problems but, for the past three years, they have not taken him to a dentist outside the prison.
However, the absence of health facilities inside the prison, especially in this time of coronavirus, is worrisome. Masks and gloves are hard to find and disinfectants are not available at all. Vermin such as mice and cockroaches are all over the place. Sometimes, when I speak with my father on the phone he says that a cockroach has just fallen on his head.
My father was very fussy about hygiene and now it is very difficult and painful for me to understand how he is dealing with this situation. He says that there is a little yard in the prison and the sewage has broken a hole through the middle of it. Early at dawn and late at night the mice roam there.
Since he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, have you been in contact with Iranian and British officials to try to secure his release?
Yes, we are writing letters all the time. Once, in prison, my father risked it and, through my grandmother, sent an audio message to Boris Johnson when he was foreign secretary. But, to be honest, nobody gives us a straight answer. They answer in generalities, like “we are doing our best to have all dual nationals released from prison.”
What stood out for you in the film The Treacherous Host?
I liked the movie in general because it reveals injustices and focuses on the fact the nobody inside the government follows the law. It tries to show the chaos that rules the government and other institutions of power in Iran.
Is there any question that you would have liked to ask Mr. Zakka that the film did not ask?
I always like to ask prisoners who are released, including Mr. Zakka, how they deal with their normal, everyday life after they leave the prison. How do they deal with their emotions after prison? Because there can be no doubt that when my father is released he cannot go back to the way he felt before prison. I would have liked to know about Mr. Zakka’s post-prison life and how he is spending his days.
In the documentary, in answer to Zakka’s question, Ms. Molaverdi repeatedly says that neither she nor the government was aware of his arrest or the charge against him. She tries to distance herself from Zakka’s arrest in whatever way she can. Do you believe Ms. Molaverdi? How did you feel as you were listening to her answers?
I cannot believe any government official. They have enough differences among themselves and lie to each other often enough, let alone not telling ordinary people the truth. Anybody who has a position in the government knows what is happening and knows why they have arrested dual nationals, but if any one of them tells the truth he gets himself and others into trouble. So they prefer to remain silent and deny the truth because this denial benefits them all.
As the daughter of Mr. Ashoori, what would you tell an Iranian official if you could?
I want to tell Iranian officials this: if you claim to be Muslims then how can you sleep at night when you arrest innocent people who have not committed any crime? I want to know why the life of a human being is so worthless to you that you sacrifice him to solve the problems that you have with each other?
Our lives are hanging between a nightmare and a normal, everyday life.