The below is an archived article first published by IranWire on May 28, 2021. It has been republished as part of our new series on transnational repression. Read more about the project here.
Ward 4 of Iran’s notorious Evin Prison is reserved for people charged with security-related and espionage offences – and of course, hostages being held on this pretext. Anousheh Ashouri, a British-Iranian dual national, is one of them.
The father-of-two, a businessman aged 67, was sentenced by the regime to 10 years in prison in 2019 on spurious charges of spying for Israel. Sixty members of the UK parliament have recently called on the British Foreign Secretary to intervene in the case, while his distraught family members continue to campaign for his release.
Shahrzad Izadi, Anousheh Ashouri's wife, has spoken to IranWire about his current condition, the torture he experienced during interrogation and his two suicide attempts in a bid to keep his family safe, as well as her view on diplomatic efforts to save Anousheh to date. Her husband has been in detention since August 2017.
"Our concern,” Shahrzad Izadi says, “is that any agreement between the Foreign Office and the Iranian government won’t include the release of all the dual national prisoners, including my husband.
“Of course, British officials have always told us that if they reach any agreement will include dual nationals. I’ve been assured many times that if a deal is made, Anousheh will be included. But we’re still afraid, because the reality is that the British government has done nothing about Anousheh for the past four years.”
Last month, on April 5, 2021, Sky News Network broadcast a message from Anousheh Ashouri that had been smuggled into its possession. "The British government has done nothing but issue statements," Ashouri lamented, in an audio recording sent from Evin Prison.
Unlike in the first 10 months of her husband's detention, Izadi says, she has decided not to remain silent anymore. "Over the past four years, we realized that if a prisoner’s situation is not covered by the media and people don’t know their name, there’s a much greater chance of their being forgotten.
“There are probably many prisoners with heavy sentences in Iran who remained silent and after a few years, were forgotten. At least by doing this we can keep Anousheh's name alive."
A Groundless Case and Futile Negotiations
Anousheh is a retired engineer who emigrated from Iran to the UK as a young man. Over the years he travelled to and from Iran many times along with his wife, son and daughter, never encountering any problems. But during his last trip, on August 4, 2017, he was suddenly arrested on leaving his mother’s house to go shopping in Tehran’s Tajrish Street.
In his wife’s telling, Anousheh was stopped by a car that pulled up in front of him, and whose occupants asked him his name. Then, she says, “they told him to lower his head, put a sack over it, and drove him away.”
A full two years later Anousheh was finally sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined £29,800 by the Revolutionary Court. No evidence for the so-called espionage has ever been made public by the authorities – because, Shahrzad Izadi says, it doesn’t exist.
"There is no document,” she told IranWire. “In the interrogator's opinion sheet, which both my husband and his lawyer observed, they wrote that Anousheh had ‘the potential to spy in the future’; that is, they had found no evidence of espionage. Despite this, the interrogator requested the most severe punishment from the court."
Anousheh’s family have been in touch with the UK Foreign Office under two successive Foreign Ministers: Jeremy Hunt – who took a book for Anousheh on a visit to Tehran to address the situation of dual nationals, though it sadly never reached him – and incumbent Foreign Minister Dominic Raab after April 2019. They have also met the British ambassador to Iran on multiple occasions.
“The result of all these meetings,” Shahrzad Izadi says, “these statements as if they’re chasing it up with the Iranian Foreign Ministry, and international conferences such as the Vienna talks being held with Mohammad Javad Zarif and others, has been pure hope. I don’t doubt these entreaties, but they have not yet been useful."
Izadi believes there are two reasons why dialogue between Britain and Iran on dual national hostages has been ineffective. “Firstly, the Foreign Ministry doesn’t make decisions about dual national prisoners; that’s for the Ministry of the Intelligence and the IRGC, and they are not present in these negotiations.
“Another important point is the British debt to Iran [£400m owed for undelivered tanks bought during the Pahlavi era]; I don’t think Iran will release any dual national prisoners until this is resolved. It has since been implicitly accepted that Iran has taken British-Iranian dual national citizens hostage so as to reclaim the debt."
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, another British-Iranian dual-national prisoner, was due to be released in spring 2020 after five years in Evin Prison and under house arrest in Tehran. But as soon as her sentence for “espionage” came to an end, she was hit with fresh charges of “propaganda against the regime” and has since been jailed for another year.
Father’s Suicide Attempts a Bid to Protect his Family
Izadi says that before his sentencing, her husband was so badly pressured by interrogators that he attempted suicide twice. Anousheh was sometimes interrogated for 10 to 12 hours at a time, then given 50 pieces of paper to take back to his cell and write down his “confessions” on.
“He was asked to create a spying scenario,” she said, “and if the pages were still blank in the morning, they would get angry. On the other hand, he was told that they monitored people’s families in Britain and if he did not cooperate, they would do ‘whatever they wanted’ with them. He was told, 'When your wife takes her dog out, we could kill her.' They said, 'We went to your daughter's shop and bought from her several times, and we could destroy her too.'
“Of course, they could also have found this out on social media. But in solitary confinement and under interrogation, Anousheh didn’t think of this and believed everything. He was told they would keep him there long enough for his wife to forget him and marry someone else."
She added: "My husband reached a point where he thought that were he not alive, his family would be safe. That notion led him to attempt suicide twice. Thankfully he didn’t succeed.
“I only found out several months later, after he was transferred to the public ward [of Evin Prison] and was able to contact us by phone. He also wrote about it in his diary, which he managed to send out of prison and which found its way into our hands.
“The attempts took place during his first two months of detention Once, when they gave him his food with the plastic knife, fork and spoon, he kept the knife and tried to cut his veins. Once, he tried to hang himself in his cell."
Later Anousheh, like other political prisoners, went on a 17-day hunger strike to protest his unlawful detention. Eventually prison guards threatened to send him to a cell with convicted members of ISIS if he did not give it up. “They told him he wouldn’t live until the morning,” his wife says.
For the first time in April 2021, Anousheh was allowed five days’ leave, which he spent with his 90-year-old mother in Tehran. “I spoke to my husband [on camera] for the first time in nearly four years,” Shahrzad Izadi recalls. “His face had become very old and thin."
Fears of Covid-19 on Evid Prison Wards
To date, none of the inmates of Evin Prison’s Ward 4, which is mostly reserved for political and security prisoners, are known to have received a dose of Covid-19 vaccine. As a dual national, Anousheh could in principle be given the vaccine by British embassy officials, who suggested as much to his wife. But, she said: “The Iranian government, because it does not recognize dual citizenship, did not allow them access.
“We think my husband contracted Covid-19 about two weeks ago because he had all the symptoms, and was very ill. My lawyers wrote a letter to Dominic Raab saying that if anything happened to a British citizen in an Iranian prison, there would be consequences for the British government."
Speaking to the British and Iranian authorities, Shahrzad Izadi said: "I demand the release of my husband by the Iranian authorities. He was arrested as an innocent, just for having a British passport. I also call on the British government to be more transparent and keep us informed of the details of their activities. We have been waiting for four years, listening to speeches and hoping. Enough is enough. They must bring him home."