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Australian Backpackers Detained in Iran: "It's Happened to Others Since"

October 8, 2020
IranWire
6 min read
Bloggers Jolie King and Mark Firkin were following a land route through Asia when they entered Iran on June 30 last year
Bloggers Jolie King and Mark Firkin were following a land route through Asia when they entered Iran on June 30 last year
The couple were documenting their globetrotting adventures online in a bid to inspire others to explore less-visited parts of the world
The couple were documenting their globetrotting adventures online in a bid to inspire others to explore less-visited parts of the world
The pair were detained at gunpoint and transferred to Evin Prison, where they were held for three months
The pair were detained at gunpoint and transferred to Evin Prison, where they were held for three months
They were released in October in what appeared to be a prisoner swap for Reza Debahshi Kivi, an Iranian cancer research student held for more than a year in Queensland
They were released in October in what appeared to be a prisoner swap for Reza Debahshi Kivi, an Iranian cancer research student held for more than a year in Queensland
“It’s happened to other foreigners since we’ve been there and there are still other foreigners there. Hopefully, not for too much longer”
“It’s happened to other foreigners since we’ve been there and there are still other foreigners there. Hopefully, not for too much longer”

Two bloggers arrested at gunpoint while travelling through Iran have broken their silence on a harrowing three months in detention.

Before being arrested in the Islamic Republic last July, British-Australian Jolie King and her Australian boyfriend Mark Firkin had been documenting their globe-trotting adventures in a modified Toyota Land Cruiser since 2017.

The pair, a building designer and construction manager from Perth, were following a well-worn land route through Asia, crossing through China, India and Pakistan and posting pictures and videos of their voyage online along the way. The blogs, they said, aimed to “inspire anyone wanting to travel... And also try to break the stigma around travelling to countries which get a bad rap in the media.”

But days after the couple arrived in Iran on June 30, 2019, friends lost contact with them and no further updates appeared on their website, The Way Overland.

It later transpired that the pair, who had been camping in a public park in Iran on the advice of another backpacker, had been arrested by Iranian security agents. They were later sentenced on trumped-up security charges and placed on the public ward of Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, before being abruptly released again in October 2019.

In a YouTube video released on Thursday, October 1, the couple broke almost 12 months of silence around what happened to them during this period. “We didn’t set out on our travels to start controversy,” Mr Firkin told the channel’s more than 30,000 followers, “or to have a negative impact on anybody. We try to show the positive in our videos.”

 

Couple Held for Months in Shambolic 'Fabricated' Case

On the night of their arrest in the park, Mr Firkin said, he and Ms King were roused at midnight by “30 to 50 armed personnel” who were not in uniform. “They wanted us to pack everything up and go with them immediately... When someone puts a gun to your head, you do what they’re asking very quickly.”

Blindfolded and handcuffed, the pair were taken to an unknown “facility” where they were held for two days without explanation. The mystified bloggers were then taken to court and placed before a judge who informed them they were being charged with espionage – which carries a 10-year custodial sentence or a death sentence in Iran – allegedly for flying a drone without a permit.

From there, the two were separated and interrogated for 10 days. They were then held in detention for another four weeks, without access to a lawyer, or contact with the Australian Embassy, or so much as a call to their families. Each day, Mr Firkin said, they spent 23.5 hours inside their cells, broken up only by a 15-minute permitted walk around the prison yard. 

The couple were then hauled back before a judge, who informed them that the espionage charges had been dropped. Instead, they were told, they were charged with “taking pictures of an atomic site”, which Ms King said was “again, a complete fabrication” and based on falsified evidence in the court documents. Now sentenced to three years behind bars, they were placed on the public ward of Evin Prison.

Around the same time, their case began to attract the attention of international media and the couple were allowed to speak to Australian officials. Foreign minister Marisa Payne intervened personally on their behalf, meeting with her Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif and describing the detentions as “a matter of deep concern”.

Then without warning, one Wednesday night in October, Ms King and Mr Firkin heard their names announced on the tannoy in Evin Prison. They were told to collect their belongings, which included the vehicle but not their phones, cameras or memory cards, and informed that they were going home. All charges against them had been dropped. They flew home on October 5 and were reunited with their relieved families in Australia.

Many Iranians have commented on the couple’s recent video to express solidarity and apologise for their treatment in Iran. “I’m from Iran, I hate it, everybody else hates it, and I hate it that you hated it,” one wrote. “Ultimately I'm glad you're fine and back now, but I'm also glad to see that our situation is slowly becoming visible for the outside world.”

Another wrote: “As an Iranian, I'm deeply ashamed to hear this and so sorry that you had such a terrible time in Iran. I almost want to cry because I'm so upset to hear this. You were not treated with the hospitality and the courtesy you deserved. This is a huge shame for Iran.”

 

Other Foreign Nationals Still Waiting for Release

Although neither the Australian Attorney General nor the Iranian authorities would confirm this, the  release of Mr Firkin and Ms King appears to have come about as part of a prisoner swap with Iran. On October 6, a day after Tehran released the two bloggers, Australian authorities confirmed the country had released 38-year-old Reza Dehbashi Kivi: a cancer research student who had been held for more than a year in Queensland following a US extradition request over allegations he had conspired to export electronic military devices to Iran.

Iranian state TV showed footage of Dehbashi Kivi arriving at Imam Khomeini Airport and hugging a woman who appeared to be a family member, saying he denied the “unfair” charges against him.

If this is true, it would be far from the first time that Iran has apparently engaged in hostage-taking on the pretext of national security. IranWire recently detailed the case of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese IT expert who was jailed in Evin Prison on fabricated spying charges in 2015. He was and only released in 2019 in exchange for Negar Qods Kani: an Iranian prisoner in the United States. Several other dual nationals, including the British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, have been held captive in Iran seemingly for financial gain.

In Evin Prison, the bloggers said, they realised for the first time that their case was not unique. “We weren’t the first ones for that to happen to,” said Mr. Firkin. “It’s happened to other foreigners since we’ve been there and there are still other foreigners there. Hopefully, not for too much longer.”

It was not until September 2019, at the same time as the bloggers’ case was making headlines, that the name of a British-Australian political prisoner in Iran, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, first began to circulate in international media. Dr. Moore-Gilbert, a lecturer in Islamic Studies at Melbourne University, had been arrested at the airport in Tehran in September 2018 on her return home from a research trip. By the time her case became public, she had been languishing in Evin Prison for more than a year on espionage charges. Now in Qarchak Prison in Varamin, there are ongoing concerns for her health and the Australian government has said it holds Iran personally responsible for her safety.

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