‘What I learned after 804 days in an Iranian prison’

Kylie Moore-Gilbert spent more than two years wrongfully locked up in an Iranian prison. This is her story of strength, resilience, and the power of family.

There’s nothing like the sleep deprivation of being a new mum to whip you into shape and to make you realise that the world is about so much more than yourself,” Melbourne academic Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert says with a laugh.

“It’s definitely given me perspective.”

Daughter Leah is now 11 months old and clearly the centre of the world for Kylie and her partner, broadcaster and comedian Sami Shah.

Sami’s daughter Anya, 14, who lives with the couple in their inner-city townhouse, is revelling in being a big sister.

Kylie reveals: “I’m really enjoying watching Leah flourish and grow and become lovely and chubby and smile and laugh and have personality and to get to know her character and her temperament.

“It’s been a blessing and a pleasure to be on that journey with my daughter and it’s a new start for me in life.

“Being able to draw a line under my experiences in Iran and create this beautiful new person and restart my life as her mum, I can’t think of a better way to recover and rebuild than that.”

The ordeal begins

It’s now more than three years since Kylie was snatched by Iran’s feared Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp at the country’s Tehran Airport, after attending an academic conference in the city of Qom.

Accused variously of being a Mossad agent, an M16 agent and a spy, Kylie, who was then a lecturer in Islamic studies at Melbourne University, was convicted in a secretive trial and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Life in an Iranian prison

Her 804 days behind bars, first in the Guard Corps’ notorious 2A wing of Evin Prison, before being transferred to the isolated desert prison Qarchak, were punctuated by long periods of solitary confinement, gruelling interrogations and uncertainty about her fate, but she never gave up.

“There’s only really one way to get through it in one piece and that’s by developing strength and resilience and somehow I was able to do that,” she says, citing the covert friendships that she made with other prisoners as her lifeline.

Kylie would communicate with prisoners through the air vents between cells and by hiding letters on the narrow outdoor balcony where she spent a solitary hour each day.

At the time of writing, two of those women, environmental activists Niloufar Bayani and Sepideh Kashani, were still incarcerated in Evin Prison.

“These two brave, courageous women did so much for me when I was in prison. They were like my sisters; they really did everything they could to help me, a complete foreigner who they owed absolutely nothing,” Kylie says.

“They didn’t even know if they could trust me and yet they reached out and offered me the hand of friendship, and that sisterhood and solidarity really, really got me through.”

Homecoming heartache

Finally, in November 2020, after more than two years of not knowing whether her feet would ever touch Australian soil again, Kylie was released in a high stakes three-nation prisoner swap deal arranged by the Australian government.

But the homecoming she had dreamt about was not to be, with news that her husband had begun a relationship with another woman.

She says the initial euphoria of being free and the desire to enjoy the small pleasures in life were replaced with “a kind of bewilderment” about her relationship breakdown and what she was going to do with the life that was suddenly hers again.

Finding freedom

Meeting Sami, getting to know a stepdaughter and the arrival of a new baby have been a large part of the salve helping her to heal.

Also helping with the process is a book, The Uncaged Sky, that Kylie, who remains a passionate advocate for human rights in the Middle East, has written, detailing her time behind bars.

“As an innocent person in prison you become aware of some of these features of a justice system that we take for granted here in Australia, like the rule of law, the presumption of innocence, the ability to access a lawyer and impartial legal advice, the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, the lack of corruption in our system,” she says.

“To be deprived of all of those things and to be an innocent person convicted of a crime you didn’t commit, it really does open your eyes to some of these broader issues.”

As a Churchill Fellow, Kylie will use that experience as she travels to the US, UK and Canada to explore those countries’ policies and procedures around wrongful and arbitrary detention and hostage diplomacy, to investigate how these could potentially improve Australia’s model and approach.

Embracing the chaos

If there’s one thing Kylie has learnt since becoming a mum, it’s that women need to be kinder to themselves.

“I feel like I’m constantly trying to keep all the balls I’ve thrown up into the air from falling on the ground and I’m not doing even 50 per cent of what I want to be doing,” she says with a smile.

“But maybe that’s OK and embracing the chaos is part of it and I should go easy on myself.

“I’m learning that having longer term goals means I can chip away at them over time rather than trying to be superwoman and trying to do everything at once.”

It seems 2024 is going to be just as busy for Kylie as 2023.

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Written by Liz McGrath.