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The inside story of one man’s five-year ordeal in an Iranian prison

By Adam Pourahmadi and Bear Hutchison, CNN

Anoosheh Ashoori points on a computer screen to the location of a makeshift shelter in the yard of Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

“I used to sit here during winter and even when it was snowing,” Ashoori says in an interview with CNN’s Becky Anderson. It was here that he worked hard to create a semblance of normality during an experience that was anything but ordinary.

The 68-year-old British-Iranian businessman spent nearly five years at Evin on espionage charges. He was convicted of spying for Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency and sentenced to 12 years, according to Iran state news agency IRNA. He insists he was wrongly convicted.

One month since he and British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe were released, Ashoori describes the anguish of leaving other dual-national prisoners behind.

Upon his return to the UK, Ashoori says he received an invitation to meet with the prime minister. He criticizes the UK government for an “incomplete job” and says he will only consider meeting the prime minister when the other prisoners are released. “You have paid 400 million pounds ($522 million) for two people,” he says, addressing the government. “What about the rest?”

The sum Ashoori refers to is a 40-year-old debt the UK owed Iran. Ashoori and his family believe that had the UK government paid it sooner, years of heartbreak would have been saved.

Despite being called a “ransom” by Iran’s critics, Tehran has denied any links between the payment of Britain’s debt and the release of two British-Iranian prisoners.

Iran’s critics accuse the Islamic Republic of holding Iranians with foreign passports as leverage in its conflict with the West, arguing that innocent dual nationals become pawns in the political wrangling between the two.

It was August 2017, Ashoori recalls, when he left his home in South London to help his mother in Iran as she recovered from a knee operation. As he walked down a hill in north Tehran to the local market, four men jumped out of a car in front of him. They verified his identity and sped away with him in the car. This was the start of a nearly five-year ordeal.

The following morning, Ashoori was allowed a 30-second phone call to his mother to tell her that he was in Evin prison. That was followed by two months of total silence, his wife Sherry Izadi told CNN.

“We had no idea if he was alive,” she said. “What was happening to him? Is he being tortured? Is he being interrogated?”

“You don’t need to be physically tortured to go through hell,” he told CNN.

His ordeal led him to consider suicide. Ashoori says he tried slashing his wrists. When that didn’t work, he tried poisoning himself. And when that didn’t work, he stopped eating. It was a covert hunger strike, because as Ashoori tells it, “when you go on hunger strike it is to protest something… but I just didn’t want to be,” he says.

As he languished in prison, Ashoori’s family opted against speaking out publicly, thinking that diplomacy would be his best chance for freedom.

“I knew that wasn’t going to be productive,” says his daughter Elika Ashoori. Two years after he was arrested, Ashoori was convicted, and that’s when his family decided it was time to begin campaigning for his release.

His wife regrets not starting the campaign sooner. “I should have started immediately after he was taken,” she says. “[I] urge all families to do the same because it’s very easy to be forgotten.”

Following his suicide attempts, Ashoori was moved into a different cell with other inmates who he began to bond with.

These groups, formed with other political prisoners in what Ashoori jokingly referred to as “Evin university,” involved discussions and workshops on physics, economics, poetry, Spanish and marquetry.

These activities were one of the ways the retired engineer stayed sane, sometimes managing to forget he was in prison “because you were so engrossed in doing these things.”

Ashoori emphasizes another group of prisoners. “The environmentalists… Even there at Evin prison, they are trying to promote the idea of saving the environment.”

Siamak Namazi, the Iranian American prisoner who has been imprisoned since 2016 alongside his father Baquer, and who Ashoori describes as “a good friend and role model,” came to congratulate him ahead of his release. “He was… genuinely happy that I was leaving. And I was so upset that I was leaving him behind.”

The fate of the remaining dual-national prisoners remains uncertain as the geopolitical standoff between Iran and the West continues.

For now, Ashoori is trying to move on with life while campaigning for the release of the other prisoners.

“When you see others leave and you are left behind, it’s another torture.”

Other top Middle East news

Turkish opposition leader to sit in the dark to protest inflation

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the chairman of Turkey’s opposition Republican People’s Party, said on Thursday that he will sit in the dark for a week after power had been cut at his home as after he refused to pay his bills in protest of steep hikes in subsidized energy prices.

  • Background: A currency crisis late last year sent inflation soaring and prompted the government to raise prices of everything from gas and electricity to road tolls, alcohol, bus fares and petrol in January.
  • Why it matters: Many analysts blame the economic turmoil on a series of unorthodox interest rate cuts engineered by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last year. The inflationary surge has hit Erdogan’s popularity ahead of national elections due no later than June 2023, in which Kilicdaroglu is seen as a potential contender for the presidency.

Iran refuses to abandon avenging Soleimani despite alleged US offers

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Navy Commander Alireza Tangsiri said on Thursday that Iran won’t abandon plans to avenge the 2020 US killing of Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, despite “regular offers” from Washington to lift sanctions and provide other concessions in return.

  • Background: Over the last year, Iran and the US have engaged in fitful, indirect talks in Vienna to revive a 2015 nuclear deal that then-President Donald Trump reneged on in 2018. While they appeared close to resurrecting the deal in March, talks stalled over whether Washington might drop Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard from its Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list.
  • Why it matters: The FTO designation is one of the last sticking points in reviving the agreement. The US has said that if Iran wants sanctions relief beyond those related to the 2015 nuclear deal, it must address US concerns beyond the pact.

Arab League urges Israel to stop Jewish prayers at Al Aqsa mosque

The Arab League called on Israel on Thursday to end Jewish prayers inside the compound of Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque, warning it was a flagrant affront to Muslim feelings that could trigger wider conflict. They said while Israel was restricting the right of worship of Muslims, ultra-nationalist Jews under police protection were being allowed. Israel insists security operations on the site — known to Jews as the Temple Mount — are aimed at permitting peaceful prayer for Muslims, as well as Jews at the nearby Western Wall.

  • Background: The Aqsa mosque area is among the most sensitive sites in the generations-old conflict. Under a ‘status quo’ agreement reached between Israel and Jordan in 1967, only Muslims can pray at the site, though anyone can visit during permitted hours. But recent years have seen many videos appearing to show Jewish visitors holding prayers there. In line with policy in previous years, Israel’s government has placed a ban on all visits by Jewish groups during the final period of Ramadan, which went into effect Thursday night.
  • Why it matters: An upsurge of violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in recent weeks has raised fears of a slide back to wider conflict. The last week has seen frequent clashes around the Aqsa mosque compound between Palestinians throwing rocks and fireworks and Israeli police firing stun grenades and tear gas.

What to watch

Jordan, which holds a special role as custodian of Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, called on Israel, to “respect the historical legal status quo” of the mosque and warned of an explosion otherwise.

Speaking to CNN’s Becky Anderson on Thursday, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said that violating that status quo “is going to lead to an explosion given the sacredness” of the site.

Watch the interview here:

Around the region

Saudi Arabia has allowed unaccompanied women to perform Islam’s most important pilgrimage as the kingdom eases restrictions on women’s movement.

Women can now perform the annual Islamic pilgrimage of Hajj without the need for a male guardian or a group of women, Hisham bin Saeed, spokesperson of the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah told Sabq newspaper.

In 2021, women were allowed to perform Hajj without a male guardian, according to the ministry, but only if they were above the age of 45 and were part of a group of women. However, women below the age of 45 were still required to have a male companion.

Every able-bodied Muslim is obligated to perform the Hajj at least once in their life. It occurs two months and 10 days after Ramadan ends, during the Islamic month of Dhul-Hijjah. The pilgrimage, performed over five days, features rituals including the wearing of a special garment that symbolizes human equality and unity before God, a counter-clockwise circumambulation of the cube-shaped Kaaba, and the symbolic stoning of the devil.

The number of annual pilgrims is yet to reach pre-pandemic levels. According to Saud Arabia’s General Authority for Statistics, the kingdom received nearly 2.5 million pilgrims in 2019, but as the pandemic struck, that number plummeted to just 1,000 in 2020 and 58,000 in 2021 due to pilgrimage being limited to people within Saudi Arabia. As the next season of pilgrimage nears, the ministry announced a maximum capacity of 1 million pilgrims this year. The pilgrimage contributes billions of dollars to the national economy.

By Mohammed Abdelbary

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