Barry Rosen’s recent hunger strike in Vienna inspired a new campaign of activism. Among those inspired to show solidarity with the former American hostage was Iranian-British citizen Anousheh Ashouri, currently held in Evin Prison on charges of espionage.
Rosen, who was one of 52 Americans held hostage in the United States embassy in Tehran in 1979, began his strike on January 18, protesting outside a hotel where Iranian officials and representatives from six other countries debated the revival of the lapsed Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Rosen stopped his strike after five days, responding to pleas from Robert Malley, the US Special Representative for Iran. But his message was profound, and the call for the release of people currently held hostage by the Islamic Republic was heard around the world.
What do we know about the roots of the recent campaign and about Anousheh Ashouri, who recently started his own hunger strike?
Barry Rosen and his Demand for the Release of Dual National Prisoners
Four decades ago, Barry Rosen was one of 52 American hostages held for 444 days at the US embassy in Tehran.
Now 76, he took the decision to go on a hunger strike outside the Vienna hotel where negotiation talks for the JCPOA had resumed, calling for the release of dual nationals currently in prison in Iran.
As Rosen ended his hunger strike, others stepped in and began protesting through hunger strikes too, including Anousheh Ashouri at Evin. Ashouri’s daughter Elika Ashouri said on Twitter that her father had begun his hunger strike in solidarity with Barry Rosen on Sunday, January 23.
Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese-American businessman who was held hostage in an Iranian prison for close to four years, journalist and poet Jamshid Barzegar, political activist Mina Ahadi, physician and human rights activist Hassan Naeb Hashem, political activist Fariba Davoodi Mohajer, and Kamran Ghaderi, an Austrian-Iranian businessman arrested in 2016, also took their cue from Rosen.
"We call on the world powers to prioritize the release of all hostages held in Iran before signing any agreement,” Zakka posted on Twitter.
Anousheh Ashouri: A Positive State of Mind
In an interview with IranWire, Anousheh Ashouri's daughter Elika Ashouri expressed worry about her father's health, but said he was in good spirits. "My father went on a 17-day hunger strike in the first days of his arrest, and [while he was] under pressure from interrogators to make a confession. He was in solitary confinement and was not allowed to contact us. He was told that if he did not confess to spying and to what they wanted, they would kill his family, and even his dogs. 'We know where your family lives in Britain,’ they said. He had decided to commit suicide by hunger strike; he wanted to remove himself so that we, his family and his children, would not be in danger. During those 17 days his physical condition deteriorated dramatically.
“But this time he seems a little more cautious because he says the purpose of the hunger strike is not to hurt himself, but to make people aware of dual-national prisoners."
Elika says her father, who is 67 years old, suffers from a range of physical problems. "Before he left for Iran, he had both knee surgery and dental surgery. Imagine for a second what it’s like to be somewhere without adequate medical care or sufficient medication. People [in jail] who go on hunger strike have to rely on information from fellow inmates who have previously done them. Naturally, the situation is not easy for my father, but he intends to continue his hunger strike."
A retired Iranian-British engineer, Anousheh Ashouri traveled to Iran in 2017 to care for his 86-year-old mother. In August 2017, security agents abducted him as he was returning home from a local shop, and he has now been in prison for more than four and a half years on charges of spying for Israel. He has been sentenced to 12 years in prison.
"My father went to Iran to take care of my grandmother, who had to have knee surgery,” Elika Ashouri told IranWire. “Since there was no one else in Iran to nurse her after the surgery, my father had no other option but to travel to Iran. He wanted to make sure his mother's health was not in danger and that everything was going well."
The Ashouri family has repeatedly tried to secure his release. As with the family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, also detained in Iran, they regard his ongoing incarceration as a hostage situation, whereby the Iranian government is trying to use dual nationals as bargaining chips in negotiations, including involving a historical debt the United Kingdom owes Iran. The dispute between the British and Iranian governments concerns a £400-million contract for Iran to buy Chieftain tanks before the 1979 revolution — a contract that was never honored.
"The value they have for the Iranian government is linked to their imprisonment,” said Elika Ashouri. “In fact, if their conditional release is agreed upon, they will essentially lose their value as hostages, and naturally this will not be in the interest of the Iranian government."
The Ashouri family never imagined they would be in this situation, given that they lived very quiet lives and had no links to political groups and were never politically active. “For this reason we had no reason or excuse not to travel to Iran. We did not work in any political or governmental agency and we never thought that going to Iran could be dangerous for us."
Elika recalls the details of her father’s arrest: A van stopped next to him while he was on his way back from the neighborhood supermarket. The driver said his name and asked Ashouri to confirm his identity. When he did, he was forced into the vehicle and taken to Evin with a bag over his head. "This was the beginning of a difficult story for our family,” Elika Ashouri says. “It took us a year to even figure out what we were involved in, because the whole thing was very strange to us. We were confused for a long time and convinced that my father had been mistaken for someone else."
Elika Ashouri says it’s important for the public to be aware of what’s happening in Iran, and to her father and other dual national hostages. And she wants more people to urge the British government and other European governments to speak out and take a stand against Iran, and to pressure the Iranian government to release them.
"We are the family of a man who is imprisoned but is completely innocent,” she says, “and we take part in joint campaigns and activities to raise public awareness on these issues."
She says that, because of journalists, activists and former hostages who have joined protests and campaigns, the issue simply cannot be ignored anymore. "This has now become an international issue. We hope there will be real pressure on governments like Britain and the United States and any country that has innocent citizens in Evin Prison. The greater the number of people protesting or striking against the horrific phenomenon of hostage-taking, and the higher the public and media awareness is, the less likely it is to happen in the future. People are beginning to understand that this is not just a series of unrelated, rare events or that something went wrong once. It is much more complex and far-reaching.”
The British Government’s Support for Anousheh Ashouri
Elika Ashouri says the UK government has not done enough to free her father. “Honestly? In these four and a half years, they have not shared the details with us. What are they doing? At this stage, we have been informed that negotiations are ongoing. No further explanation has been given. They always say, ‘we are consulting’ and ‘we are hopeful.’ But in my opinion, these talks have not been effective. The British government is struggling with some deep-seated problems, and the problems of the jailed dual nationals is not a priority or even a matter of serious concern for them."
At the same time, the government of the Islamic Republic has always emphasized the fairness of the trials for these hostages.
In an interview with Reuters, the US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley said it was unlikely that the United States could reach a lasting agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue without the release of dual-national prisoners. There is good reason to believe that European governments involved in talks – the United Kingdom, Germany and France — support this stance.
Saeed Khatibzadeh, a spokesperson for Iran's Foreign Ministry, has previously said the judiciary had upheld the charges against the hostages through fair, legitimate courts. In a new statement, however, Khatibzadeh said that if the United States had the will to discuss potential prisoner exchange deals, an agreement may be plausible.
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