A British Iranian with dual citizenship sentenced to nine years and three months in jail in Iran for cooperating with “a hostile state power” has escaped from Iran, escaping across the country’s treacherous mountainous border, and now lives in London.
In an interview with The Guardian, Kameel Ahmady explained that he felt he had no choice but to flee after spending nearly 100 days in Evin Prison, including a brutal spell in solitary confinement while being interrogated.
“Once I was sentenced, I had the option to stay and not see my family and my four-year-old son until he was 14, or risk running away,” he said.
Ahmady, a social anthropologist whose investigation revealed the extent of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Iran, was convicted of conspiring with hostile foreign powers in November 2020, among other charges, but was released on bail pending her appeal. .
He said that since Iranian courts normally upheld the first trial and due to the political motivation of the trial, he had not had much hope that his appeal would be successful, a view that was confirmed when it was rejected in absentia on Monday.
Ahmady said he did not yet know if Iranian officials realized he had fled the country.
He escaped carrying only his laptop and copies of the books and articles he had published, crossing the border through 1.5-meter-deep snow and fog, evading Iranian border patrols. Border security has increased since the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in Tehran last year.
“I am Kurdish by ethnicity and I know some of the routes, but it was very dangerous. I had to try several times, ”he said.
Ahmady followed the paths used by mountain porters, circumventing US-imposed sanctions to carry alcohol, car parts, medicine, cigarettes and contraband from Iraq and Turkey. But the routes are dangerous: A smuggler with four tires on his back was recently shot by border guards, while several others were frozen to death.
He said he feared that if he had been caught he would have faced more years in jail, but he had to take the risk. “I smuggled myself out of Iran out of desperation,” he said. “I felt like I had no choice or option to leave. They forbade me to travel. He had this reward and this sentence. “
Ahmady is one of the few Britons with dual Iranian nationality, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who have been arrested in Iran and held apparently for negotiation purposes.
Born in the multicultural city of Naghadeh, populated by Kurds and Turks, in the West Azerbaijan province of Iran, Ahmady left Iran for the UK when he was 18 years old, but returned in 2010 to care for his elderly father.
He was first arrested on August 11, 2019 after returning from a UN human rights conference in Ethiopia, which he attended in his role as an expert on FGM and child marriage. His family made his arrest known two days later.
He believes that he was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Guards in part due to his investigative work and also because Iran was seeking British assets to seize in retaliation by British Marines who helped seize an Iranian ship, Grace 1, off Gibraltar on 4 May. July 2019. The ship was suspected of violating EU sanctions by bringing oil to Syria.
He was formally accused of trying to bring about socio-cultural changes in the Islamic Republic by pushing to raise the age of child marriage, promote homosexuality and maintain contact with foreign powers.
“In the first week of the interrogation, the British ship was released, but I did not have access to the media. He was in solitary confinement. So the only source of information he had was the interrogators. And one day, this guy just came in and he was so happy. He said, ‘Thank you. Thank you very much. We got our ship back. And I think you made a difference here. So thank you for this, but we still have a long way to go with you. ‘
“And I said, ‘What does that have to do with me?’ He said, ‘Wow, let’s go. You are British, you are worth a lot. Britain is the cradle of human rights, so of course you are worth a lot to them. ‘
Ahmady said he had been harassed for a long time prior to his arrest after becoming a target of the Revolutionary Guard, which began to challenge his research on female genital mutilation, child marriage, temporary marriage, ethnicity and relationships. lesbians, bisexuals and homosexuals.
He said his phone was stolen on the street and soon after all his accounts, including his emails, were hacked. He was met with a last minute conference ban or seminars canceled, especially after he gave media interviews and was invited to give a presentation to a group of Iranian MPs to raise the age of child marriage from 13 to 15 years.
A bill increasing the age was approved by a majority in parliament, but was blocked by the legal commission shortly after. The actual age of child marriage can be lowered to nine with parental and court permission.
He said that since the spring of 2019 and the start of the harassment against him, he had been preparing for arrest. But when it happened, the reality was still a shock.
“It’s like they have been ready for you for months or weeks. They are very good at it, they are trained to know what to do at different stages. They know what to do, how long to interrogate you, and exactly when to do it.
“They started with me in a very, very small room, it’s almost like a grave. You have three military blankets, one for a cover, one for sleeping, and one for a pillow. For 24 hours there is a bright light on top of your head, a Quran, a mohr where the Shiites pray, and a phone to contact the guards and take you to the bathroom. There is no natural light, and a window opens in the prison door where they put the food. That is your only communication with the outside world. It’s incredibly quiet and it drives you crazy. You don’t know what time it is and you don’t know what will happen next.
“When they take you out to go to the bathroom, or to get half an hour of fresh air or to be questioned, they blindfold you. And then your questioning becomes your lifeline, it’s so sad that you want to be questioned more because that’s the only way you can communicate with a human being.
“They went to great lengths to portray me as someone sent to Iran by the British, recruited by foreign powers to try to influence certain people in government.”
Ahmady said that after about a month they moved him to a slightly larger room where he could walk in a circle. “It had a bathroom and it felt like Buckingham Palace.”
His case was delayed due to the Covid outbreak. Just before his trial, allegations surfaced about his professionalism.
“At the trial, Abolqasem Salavati, the judge in many controversial human rights cases, was very condescending, and from his questioning it can be said that he has made a decision.
“Although he had all my books and research, he was not interested in them. In fact, he had no knowledge of the social sciences and no experts were present or authorized to give a professional opinion. The only thing that worried him was my dual citizenship, the number of years I had been in the UK, the universities I had attended. The whole purpose of the interrogation was to link me with the West and my infiltration as part of an attempt to change the Islamic way of life.
“On one level I knew I was in trouble. There was a time in prison when my main interrogator came down the hall (I knew it was him from the sound of his footsteps) and was smacking his lips. He said, ‘Kameel, you are delicious. First you are Kurdish, second, you are of Sunni origin, the most important thing is that you are British and you are researching sensitive topics. We can negotiate with you. You know how it works. ‘”
But he said he still thought he would get away with a warning or some kind of suspended prison.
But Salavati found him guilty and his judgment, published by Ahmady, shows how ideologically the regime opposed his work on female genital mutilation and early child marriage and how convinced they were that he was working for hostile powers.
Salavati said that Ahmady had taken courses at universities where “subversive institutes and relevant centers for espionage services organized these courses.” Salavati said it was possible “that the spy services would invest in people like Kameel Ahmady, educating and preparing them to penetrate the Islamic Republic of Iran many years later.”
By holding campaign meetings with Iranian MPs trying to increase the age of child marriage, Salavati discovered that Ahmady had tried to undermine Iran.
Salavati said in his opinion: “Generally, it can be said that raising the marriage age of children is one of the enemy’s strategies to weaken and ruin the family system; and that Mr. Kameel Ahmady is one of the leaders in the implementation of this strategy in Iran ”.
Ahmady said: “When they told me the length of the sentence I thought it was a joke. I never thought they were going to give 10 years. Everyone was shocked.
“At first I insisted that I was not going to go. I have been a fighter all my life but now I must change my battlefield. I just thought what am I going to do?
“I knew if I was caught trying to escape I would be open to all kinds of interpretations that I was who they said I was, that I was being rescued by a foreign power, that I was transferring data abroad.”
He said that he now wanted to become a voice for those in Iran’s rural communities, the dispossessed, people from ethnic and religious minorities. At the same time, you would like to participate in creating a dialogue.
He said: “The Islamic regime is run by a small minority, the so-called hardliners, but that generation of leaders is disappearing.
“Most of the people, those who do not make a living from high politics, corruption, are not reformists or fundamentalists, but people who want to see change. There is a shred of hope after years of hardship and sanctions that have brought people to their knees and crippled the economy.
“If negotiations are resumed, it is very important that Iranian civil society and opposition groups are heard on issues such as human rights. Nothing good came out of the conflict and fanaticism, and I say this from personal experience. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism