I kept silent to protect my colleague and friend, Kylie Moore-Gilbert. But Australia’s quiet diplomatic approach is not working

Abedin Taherkenareh/AAP

Jessie Moritz, Australian National University

Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a Middle East expert from the University of Melbourne, has now been held by the Iranian government for almost two years.

She was arrested in September 2018 and then convicted of spying and sentenced to ten years’ jail. She has denied all allegations against her, and the Australian government rejects the charges as baseless and politically motivated.

Until recently, Kylie has been in solitary confinement in Iran’s Evin prison, run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. But this week, she was transferred to Qarchak, which is notorious for its brutal treatment of prisoners.

Portrait of Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert.
Kylie Moore-Gilbert has been detained in Iran for more than 680 days.
Department of Foreign Affairs

Kylie is a colleague and a friend. For the past two years, I have been keeping silent in the hopes a quiet diplomatic approach would secure her freedom.

But it is hard to overstate how horrific this week’s development is. Australia needs to do more.

‘Entirely alone’

I am a Middle East analyst, who specialises in the Persian Gulf. In fact, Kylie and I first met because we both work on state-society relations in Bahrain. I can see, examining the treatment of other foreign political prisoners in Iran, that Kylie has been treated exceptionally poorly.

In letters smuggled out of Evin prison last year, Kylie wrote how she felt “entirely alone”. She has also written how her “physical and mental health continues to deteriorate”.

Media reports indicate Kylie was able to speak to her family about a month ago and Australian diplomatic staff have also been in contact.

However the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s statement this week – that they are “urgently seeking further consular access to her at this new location” and “hold Iran responsible for Dr Moore-Gilbert’s safety and well-being” – suggests Australia was not consulted before her transfer to Qarchak.

On Wednesday, The Guardian reported a recording of Kylie out of Qarchak. Speaking Persian, she says:

I can’t eat anything. I feel so very hopeless […] I am so depressed.

Is this all two years of diplomacy has bought us?

Australia must do more

I am not speaking out now to challenge this quiet diplomatic approach regarding Iran. I am speaking because I believe more public pressure must be placed on the Australian government to ensure it is living up to its own rhetoric.

DFAT claims Kylie’s case is “one of the Australian government’s highest priorities, including for our Embassy officials in Tehran”.

But the amount of secrecy involved in the process means we cannot know if this is true.

Read more:
The Australian government needs to step up its fight to free Kylie Moore-Gilbert from prison in Iran

Even though the situation is sensitive, there are avenues Australia can pursue on behalf of Kylie.

Based on my analysis of publicly reported cases, around one in three foreign political prisoners in Iran over the past five years have been released via a prisoner swap. This reportedly includes Australian tourists Jolie King and Mark Firkin who were arrested in Iran last year.

Based on publicly available knowledge, Australia does not currently hold any Iranian prisoners. However our key ally, the United States, does.

The politics are not straightforward

It must be acknowledged that the politics around this case are very complicated. Relations between Iran and the US and far from friendly – especially after the assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.

There is another problem, too.

Despite Australia maintaining constructive relationships with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, they are not the key to securing Kylie’s freedom.

Read more:
As pressure on Iran mounts, there is little room for quiet diplomacy to free detained Australians

The Iranian political system is fragmented and parts of the army, judiciary and intelligence agencies report to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Rouhani and Khamenei’s relationship is also poor and Khamenei’s influence has grown since Kylie was first incarcerated. Iran will hold presidential elections in 2021 and as Khamenei seeks to secure Iran’s future, he may attempt to empower a more hardline president.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani walking in front of a portrait of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Relations between Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are poor.
Iran President handout

This means Australia must think outside the box to secure Kylie’s release. The solution to this crisis is undoubtedly a diplomatic one – and we clearly need to spend more diplomatic capital than we’re already using to fix it.

But it will become more difficult if we do not put sufficient resources into her release before the next presidential election.

This case is relevant for all of us

COVID-19 also makes Kylie’s situation more urgent. My assessment is the Australian government must urgently push for Kylie’s immediate transfer out of Qarchak prison, to a safe location where her consular access and health can be protected.

There is precedent for foreign detainees to be transferred to house arrest in embassies while cases are resolved.

Beyond the harrowing personal situation, Kylie’s case is also relevant to all of us. It fits a wider pattern, where the space for academic research is being narrowed in authoritarian states. This is occurring not just in Iran but in countries such as China, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

If this research cannot be conducted, or if the Australian government fails to protect its researchers who need to do fieldwork in these countries, this allows authoritarian states to silence criticism.

And then set the narrative about their internal politics as they see fit.

Read more:
Scholars’ growing insecurity puts academic freedom at risk

The Conversation

Jessie Moritz, Lecturer in Middle East studies, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why prisons in Victoria are locked up and locked down


Lesley Russell, University of Sydney

This week revealed cases of coronavirus infection in a Victorian prison guard and a prisoner in quarantine on remand. Now six Victorian prisons are in lockdown.

This is not the first time there has been a positive COVID-19 test for prison personnel in Australia; three justice health staff in New South Wales tested positive earlier this year.

Public health and prison officials look fearfully at the toll coronavirus has taken on incarcerated populations around the world. They recognise Australian prisons are also at high risk for coronavirus outbreaks.

Many have pushed for proactive measures to prevent this. Now the adequacy of the implemented measures is being tested.

Read more:
Coronavirus: why prison conditions can be a perfect storm for spreading disease

Why are prisons and prisoners at increased risk?

Prisons and prisoners are at increased risk of coronavirus for many reasons, including:

  • Prisoners and staff (who come and go into the community) are in close contact. So it is easy to see how transmission could occur between the community and prison populations, and back again.

  • Overcrowding means prisoners cannot self-isolate.

  • Hygiene standards are poor and there have been reported shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) for both staff and prisoners. National Cabinet agreed in May supplying PPE to corrections facilities should be a priority “if COVID-19 cases are confirmed in the sector”, so it is not clear if this has happened.

  • Prisoners have higher rates of social disadvantage and many are medically vulnerable due to lifelong difficulties accessing health care; mental health and substance abuse problems; violence; and unhealthy prison conditions.

  • Indigenous Australians are significantly over-represented in the prison population. While coronavirus has been kept out of Indigenous communities, there is every reason to believe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, like other First Nations people, are at increased risk from coronavirus infection and death.

  • There is significant churn in the justice system as people are taken into custody, bailed, jailed and released.

  • There is little data to assess the adequacy of health-care facilities in prisons. But prisoners have an inherent health-care disadvantage as they cannot make their own decisions about their health care, or access Medicare and medicines under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

What’s happening in prisons during the pandemic?

There is little information about what is happening to protect Australian prisons from the pandemic.

One media report in March outlined some measures individual states and territories have taken. All jurisdictions have limited prison visits and most, including Victoria, have instituted a 14-day quarantine for new prisoners.

There has been some testing in some prisons, but the extent is not known. A media report in May stated Victoria would increase testing in prisons after three inmates returned inconclusive tests that were later found to be negative.

Should we be releasing prisoners?

Australian governments have faced renewed calls to urgently release some prisoners into the community. This would cut the number of people held in prisons and other places of detention, particularly Indigenous people and others at increased risk.

Governments in some states, have responded by introducing legislation to allow for this, although we don’t yet know the extent of any releases.

Read more:
For First Nations people, coronavirus has meant fewer services, separated families and over-policing: new report

However, release into the community is only a safe option if people have appropriate housing and support services. There are concerns that releases — which are based on risk to the community, the safety of victims and access to accommodation — will be culturally biased against those most likely to benefit such as Indigenous prisoners.

Many Indigenous communities are closed to visitors and no-one can return until after a 14-day isolation period. This presents difficulties for those prisoners who do not have accommodation options outside their communities.

We need to avoid what’s happening overseas

The clear lessons from the second outbreak of coronavirus in Victoria and from the disastrous situation of rising coronavirus cases in prisons in the United States is that swift, concerted actions are needed to curtail spread of the virus.

The only way to know what is happening is rapid testing of prisoners and staff, whether or not they show symptoms, and effective isolation of anyone possibly infected.

At the same time, the human rights of this vulnerable population must be protected and their physical and mental health needs addressed. Already most prisoners are unable to have visitors and in Victoria they are unable to receive needed supplies such as toiletries, books, food and clothing.

Families are reportedly “sick with worry” they will not be notified if a family member falls ill.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that during a global pandemic,
the consequences of neglecting the prison population was “potentially catastrophic”.

Read more:
Coronavirus: a history of pandemics in prison

In Australia, Hannah McGlade, academic, human rights lawyer and a member of the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues, said:

Prison is the most unsafe place that Aboriginal people can be in a pandemic.

The Victorian government is already on notice. A recent decision of the Victorian supreme court found it had breached its duty to take reasonable care for the health of people behind bars during the coronavirus pandemic.

It is imperative that in the days ahead coronavirus infections in prisons and other correctional facilities are accepted as a public health problem for everyone.The Conversation

Lesley Russell, Adjunct Associate Professor, Menzies Centre for Health Policy, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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