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Ex-Iran detainee Anoosheh Ashoori: 'My heart is with the people I’ve left behind'

Speaker Hoyle meets with Anoosheh Ashoori. © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

8 min read

Sentenced to 10 years on spying charges, Anoosheh Ashoori returned from Iran on the same plane as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. He tells Sienna Rodgers about his ordeal and continuing fight for the remaining detainees

Anoosheh Ashoori, his wife Sherry Izadi, daughter Elika and son Aryan are mingling in the Speaker’s House. As the family greets journalists, MPs and Sir Lindsay Hoyle with warm handshakes and generous smiles, it is difficult to believe that Ashoori was being held hostage in Iran less than three months ago.

Listen carefully, however, and there are hints that all is not well. When former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt says how nice it is to meet Elika, the 35-year-old pastry chef pointedly replies they have met several times before.

Ashoori later delivers a short speech, telling the room his family “suffered mentally and financially” during their campaign for his release from the infamous Evin prison, where he lived for nearly five years in what he describes as a “coffin”.

“I’m still getting flashbacks many times a day,” he says. “Even standing here, I’m prepared to wake up to that coffin… Although I am here with you, my heart is with the people I’ve left behind.”

When Ashoori was arrested in Iran in 2017 and bundled into a car by four men, his first thought was he was being kidnapped. Then the British-Iranian dual national was handed a paper indicating the men were from Iran’s Intelligence Ministry: he was being accused of spying. For weeks he was interrogated, with threats made to his family; for weeks he attempted suicide in various ways, from water intoxication to cutting his wrist with a sharpened spoon, to starvation.

The 68-year-old retired civil engineer was held in a cell with an Isis fighter, then in a room with 17 other people; taken blindfolded to interrogation centres; prodded and measured by doctors. Finally, fingerprints and mugshots heralded the end of his initial stay in prison – “the worst period”.

“Then I was sent to the infamous hall 12, which was a dungeon. I was there for two and a half years, perhaps, where I met a lot of fine people. That was a small village, in a sense, with very highly educated people there,” he tells The House.

Boris Johnson never responded to pleas from my family. And then when I am back, he is asking me to meet him”

On the day of his arrest, Ashoori phoned his mother, whom he was visiting in Iran. The 30-second exchange allowed him to say he was in Evin and little else. The family knew nothing more for two months, before a brief visit from his mother was permitted. Eventually, Ashoori was allowed to call his wife. A thyroid operation had changed her voice and Ashoori thought it was an imposter. To reassure him, Izadi had to use a nickname only she and Ashoori knew.

Ashoori’s family were perplexed by the whole situation. “The first nine months, up until June 2018, it didn’t even occur to us to go public,” Izadi says. “We seriously believed they were going to say, ’Sorry, we made a mistake, he is being released.’ We didn’t even go to the Foreign Office.”

When they did contact the FCDO, they were advised to keep quiet. “We were always worried that if we go public, it might have implications on his sentence. It wouldn’t have, but we didn’t know.” They spoke out only after Ashoori was named in the Iranian media as a spy in September 2019.

Janet Daby, Labour MP for Lewisham East, was not contacted by her constituents until two years into Ashoori’s detention. “They were very troubled,” she says, remembering the first meeting with Izadi and her two children. “They felt like a very brave and confident family, which was very helpful for me. It meant they were going to be easy to work with.”

“Whenever I’d raise a question in Parliament, I was told afterwards I was making the case worse for the family,” Daby says. Knowing Ashoori’s imprisonment related to the £400m debt owed by Britain to Iran, the MP was undeterred.

While Daby spoke about the case in Parliament, Izadi wrote to Boris Johnson asking for help. There was no answer. “He didn’t even ring us,” Izadi says. Daby adds: “The Foreign Office wanted us to keep quiet and go away, basically. Yet the evidence speaks for itself. The two high-profile cases are the two that came home.”

On 16 March, after almost five years in Evin, Ashoori returned to the UK, alongside Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – the most well-known imprisoned British-Iranian. Mehran Raoof, whose family have kept his case private, and Morad Tahbaz, who was supposed to be included in the March agreement but was left out, have not received the same level of media attention.

Izadi is hugely thankful for the help provided by Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard. Yet she also describes their story as “media gold”: a young woman taken away from her husband and young child. “With us, it was an uphill battle,” she says. “We’re this dark-haired, Middle Eastern-looking family from south-east London. Not that attractive to the media, unfortunately.”

“The job is not finished, only two people have returned. What about the rest?”

Ashoori recalls the day of his return. “They took me to this VIP hall at the airport as if they were holding a valuable package,” he says. “You were worth £200m,” Daby points out. Ashoori replies, with a laugh: “It all happened simultaneously. How could it not be related? They did not even give it a day rest between our release and the payment. That is so funny.”

He is full of praise for the civil servants involved in his release, particularly Middle East Department director Stephanie Al-Qaq. “Even when we were going to be taken on board that aircraft, they were going to play a trick and send them on the aircraft and return us back to Evin prison. And if it wasn’t for Stephanie, we would have perhaps been sent back,” Ashoori says.

“My criticism is at the leadership itself, the apex of this hierarchy. Boris Johnson never responded to the pleas from my family. And then when I am back, he is asking me to meet him. If you ask a child, they will say that he must have his own interests in mind to do that.

“The job is not finished. The task is not over. It is not accomplished because only two people have returned. What about the rest? I am not going to meet him until all the rest have returned. And then I may consider whether I’m going to meet him.”

Daby puts his long-awaited release down to increasing cross-party support – and, more controversially, the government’s desire for a “good story”. “They needed something positive, and this was a positive story. But it hasn't gone the way the Prime Minister wanted it to, because he hasn’t been able to meet [Ashoori] and get the credit for this situation. And rightly so. He shouldn’t receive that credit.”

While Ashoori appears remarkably good-natured while speaking of the horrors he experienced, the question must be asked: is he angry with Johnson? “Extremely. If I take an hour of your time and I waste it and you cannot have that back, how would you feel? If I take a day of your time and I waste it? If I take a year of your time and I waste it? If I take nearly five years of your time and I waste it? How would you feel?

“At the end of the day, they had to pay that debt. Somebody has to be held accountable. The Iranians got their £400m. The government is getting the credit. Me and Nazanin are sitting there like ducks. We are the losers here – in more ways than one.”

A government spokesman said: "From the Prime Minister down, this government has been committed to securing the release of Anoosheh Ashoori.

"It was always entirely in Iran's gift to do this, but UK ministers and diplomats were tireless in working to secure his freedom and are delighted that he is now home.

"Our consular team were in close regular contact with Anoosheh's family, with officials available to them at any time throughout his ordeal."

The former detainee will continue to do personal interviews because his fight goes on. “I feel so guilty to have come out of that cesspool, that valley of hell, as I call it. And my friends are still there. Going through the same ordeal every day, every single day,” he says.

He does not know exactly how many British nationals remain: some with family in Iran fear going public. Nonetheless, Ashoori has a message for those left behind in Evin: “Don’t be silent. Speak up as loud as you can. Otherwise, you’ll rot in there.”

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