'We should have spoken out on day one of 1,672': Why freed British-Iranian Anoosheh Ashoori and wife Sherry Izadi wish they hadn't stayed silent
Two dates Anoosheh Ashoori and Sherry Izadi will never forget. August 13, 2017, the day Anoosheh was kidnapped off the streets of Tehran, and March 16, 2022, when he finally departed, after years in Iran’s Evin prison, for the UK.
The intervening days would change Anoosheh and his family's life forever – thrusting an Iranian Brit into the centre of a decades-old geopolitical dispute over an unpaid debt.
Today, their story has made front-page headlines alongside dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who also spent years unjustly behind bars.
Yet, in the beginning, they stayed silent for two years – following UK Foreign Office advice.
Anoosheh and Sherry tell The New Arab why, looking back, they would have spoken out on day one of 1,672.
The 'dungeon village'
“We all knew what Evin prison was,” said the retired engineer, sitting at home in London next to his wife Sherry and their happy yapping dog.
“But you never think about it, what is going on on the other side. And, when you go on to the other side, then you’re wondering why doesn’t anybody think of me when I am here?”
Anoosheh spent the majority of his arbitrary detention behind the walls of Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. It was a place he used to pass by as a free man. It would later become his “coffin” for almost five years.
The 68-year-old's ordeal started when he was visiting his mother in Iran during the summer of 2017. He planned to go to a local market to fix the malfunctioning zip on his suitcase.
Suddenly, a car pulled up when he was walking down Tehran’s streets. Four men came out and surrounded him. The apolitical British citizen was utterly perplexed.
Anoosheh was told to get into the car and was driven along Tehran’s expressway. One of the men handed him an arrest warrant titled “espionage”. He was being accused of spying against the Islamic Republic, like other dual nationals before and after him.
Anoosheh and his family have always denied the trumped-up charges.
Initially, the dual national was driven to a “private house” for the first of many interrogations. Then, he was taken to his mother’s home so he could collect and hand over his laptop and passport. Afterwards, Anoosheh went to Evin prison.
“You can divide your stay [in Evin] into two phases,” said Anoosheh. “Phase one is when you are being interrogated.”
Anoosheh was interrogated in section 209 of the prison, he said.
Human Rights Watch has documented multiple testimonies of inmates – held without charge – being subjected to abuse and inhumane conditions in 209.
Prisoners are placed in solidarity confinement in a cell measuring around one metre by two metres, the rights group reported. During interrogations, people are forced to sign confessions in conditions that amount to ”psychological and physical torture”. Many are denied medical care and are completely cut off from their family, they said.
Anoosheh has previously described 209 as a “torture house”. It was during his time here that he tried to kill himself.
The second phase, said Anoosheh, was Hall 12. Here, he was placed alongside people facing similar accusations.
Anoosheh described the hall as a “dungeon”. It consisted of five rooms, one small corridor, toilets, showers and a patio. Sometimes up to 60 people lived there. Sharing such a small space with so many people was a “never-ending challenge,” he said. Certain rules had to be established between inmates in order to maintain peace.
The other big challenge was how to spend the endless days in confinement.
“You had to fill up time,” explained Anoosheh. “From the time you get up to the time you go to bed.”
He used to get up at half-past 5, eat and exercise.
Anoosheh also participated in a number of different societies – including marquetry and poetry classes.
“There were some beautiful poems,” written by other inmates, he said. “They were describing their own walls, inside the coffin. That’s your ceiling, that’s your sky.”
When asked about the origins of the poetry society, Anoosheh said that it all started in his “refuge” – a little shelter he built on the patio. Friends recited beautiful verses to him one day.
We thought “this was nice, so let’s repeat this,” he said. The society would end up meeting twice a week for two or three hours with around eight members.
“They used to come and read poems… praising their wives, saying how much they miss their kids.
“When you get into that little village, people get to know each other. And when you are there for five months, six months, one year, two years, three years, you get to know each other as your family. You get to know their pain, their suffering, and what their families are going through,” said Anoosheh.
Who can you trust?
Back in London, Anoosheh's wife and children were going through their own form of torment. How can they secure the release of their husband and father? Who can help them?
“You’re not trained to deal with these situations,” said Sherry to The New Arab. “We were so inexperienced that for nine months we didn’t even know we could go to the Foreign Office and ask for help.”
Eventually, Sherry reached out to the UK government in June 2018, after Anoosheh voiced concerns about his British passport.
“I rang the Home Office first and they said it’s nothing to do with us,” she said. “I rang the Foreign Office and the person who initially answered the phone said it was nothing to do with us. Then somebody rang me a couple of hours later and said sorry our colleague misspoke.”
From then onwards, Sherry contacted the Foreign Office regularly. Their initial advice to the family was to keep quiet, she said.
“They never tell you directly to be quiet. They say it’s better for you… and advise you to be quiet to give diplomacy a chance. Of course, you trust them because who else are you going to trust.”
However, over time, silence was no longer a viable option
Sherry said the Iranians “outed” the news about Anoosheh’s detention, which pushed her to go public.
“I wish I publicised it from day one when he was arrested… and that’s what I’m urging all the remaining families to do to make their voice heard,” she said.
The historic debt
Sherry also said that for years the UK Foreign Office denied the link between her husband’s arbitrarily detention and a historic unpaid debt between Britain and Iran.
It is now widely reported that Anoosheh and Nazanin’s fate was bound to a £400 million debt dating back 40 years.
In the 1970s, the Shah of Iran ordered tanks and weapons from the UK. Britain accepted the money but only some of the tanks were delivered before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Without the full delivery, the Iranian government wanted their money back.
Anoosheh and Sherry first puzzled together the connection following an encounter with an anonymous figure outside a courtroom in early 2018.
“He [the anonymous figure] implied that my case may be related to the deal,” said Anoosheh, explaining he knew the individual wasn’t a prisoner because of his shoes.
“Then I told Sherry and gradually… everything started revealing itself.”
It was only after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and then-foreign secretary Dominic Raab tweeted about Anoosheh’s case in August 2021 and Iran immediately responded asking Britain to pay the debt that the government stopped denying there was any link, said Sherry.
On the fourth anniversary of Anoosheh Ashoori’s wrongful detention in Iran, I reiterate my call for Iran to do the right thing and release him immediately.— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) August 13, 2021
Anoosheh and the other British nationals unjustly imprisoned in Iran must be able to return to their families in the UK.
Eventually, the debt was "settled". The New Arab understands that the payment complied with UK and international sanctions and the money was ring-fenced for the purchase of humanitarian goods.
In a letter dated March 16 2022, current UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss acknowledged the debt was "settled" alongside announcing Anoosheh and Nazanin’s imminent return from Iran. The letter does not specify how the money was transferred or an accountability mechanism to ensure it is indeed spent on humanitarian goods.
When asked about an upcoming inquiry into the matter, Sherry replied: “I don’t know about closure, but it might help other people who are still there.
"Why did they have to go through this suffering? If this was paid, then why weren’t the others released?”
Morad Tahbaz, a British-Iranian-American, is still in Evin prison, alongside other dual nationals.
Live long and prosper – but don’t do it quietly
The couple from London were adamant that they would not stop speaking out about those left behind.
“I really hope that this process has not ended. I really hope that talks are going on to release other dual nationals. If it is just for the sake of Nazanin and me, then this will be a loss, this would be a failure. Two people, 400 million pounds… All of them should come back,” said Anoosheh.
“It is good to be outspoken, you won’t get anywhere if you’re not. You’ll be forgotten,” said Sherry.
The New Arab contacted the UK Foreign Office about their treatment of Anoosheh and his family as well as their policy for supporting families of those arbitrarily detained.
They responded with this statement: “From the Prime Minister down, this government was always 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.”
Rosie McCabe is a journalist for The New Arab.