Sherry Izadi, the Lewisham woman whose husband Anoosheh Ashoori, has been imprisoned in Iran for four years and whose case parallels that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe talks to Chandni Doulatramani about separation and the Foreign Office’s refusal to give him diplomatic immunity
At first, Sherry Izadi thought it was a case of mistaken identity.
Her husband, Anoosheh Ashoori, was visiting family when he was arrested in Tehran in August 2017 on charges of spying for the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.
Izadi says her husband, now 67, was snatched off the streets of Tehran in a dispute between the UK and Iran over chieftain tanks signed in the 1970s with the former Shah, which has left the UK government with a £400 million debt.
Ashoori has been detained in Iran for over four years. The case has been compared to fellow British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Izadi, 58, says she has now lost hope that he would be exonerated before completing his 12-year sentence unless the debt is cleared.
A British-Iranian dual national, Ashoori attended Thames Polytechnic – now known as Greenwich University – and has lived in Lewisham with his wife since 2005. They have been married for thirty-seven years. He studied to be an aeronautical engineer. After graduating, he set up his own civil engineering company which specialised in building formworks.
“I never make plans in advance. I take it one day at a time,” Izadi, who has two children in their 30s with Ashoori, tells Eastlondonlines.
We meet at a pub garden in Lewisham’s Lee neighbourhood, a five-minute walk from her house. Packed in a red puffer coat and a monochrome scarf on a windy Sunday evening, Izadi’s face betrays no emotion—she conceals her guilt and grief with a broad smile and dark humour.
She tells me a story from last year when Ashoori’s bi-focal spectacles needed replacement. He had been fixing his broken glasses with wires and couldn’t get his eyesight tested at Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, where he has been locked up. An optical retailer in London refused to sell Izadi a new pair of glasses based on her husband’s four-year-old prescription, until she told them that he was being held hostage in Iran and couldn’t come in for a checkup. “The poor woman just like, looked at me … It was like she’d never prepared for that scenario,” Izadi laughs.
But it has been a difficult journey for Izadi and her children.
When Ashoori, who doesn’t even know how to spell Mossad in Farsi, was arrested in 2017, his mother had found a note when she returned home late in the evening. It said that Ashoori had run into a friend and was staying with him for the night. The family thought it was unusual but decided to wait until the morning. Ashoori called his mother the following day for 15 seconds and informed her that he was being held in Evin Prison but suspected it wasn’t anything serious. Two months after that fateful call there was radio silence—they thought he was dead. Then his mother was allowed to visit.
“He went in a chubby, 64-year-old man; and when my mother-in-law saw him, he was this old man with a beard who had lost 17 kilograms. She said he looked like an Auschwitz survivor” Izadi tells me. Ashoori was being pressured to sign a confession that stated he was a spy for Israel’s secret service – though he relented and refused to sign. In protest he went on a hunger strike. He also attempted suicide twice.
Soon after the meeting, in his first conversation with Izadi, Ashoori told her that neither she nor the kids should come to Iran as they could end up like him—in prison. Ashoori was punished and couldn’t make phone calls for two months. Now for the last six months, the family has been speaking with him everyday. Ashoori first makes a call to his mother because he isn’t allowed to make international calls. His mother then calls Izadi on WhatsApp from another number and puts both husband and wife on speakerphone so they can talk.
When asked to respond to the Mossad accusation against her husband, Izadi said they had never been to Israel, have nothing to do with Israel and have no friends or family in Israel. She called the spy allegation “preposterous” and said it was straight out of a Hollywood movie.
Izadi, who is currently in therapy and has taken anti-depressants in the past, says guilt has been the biggest emotion to overcome. “Any activity that could vaguely be described as fun like sitting at home watching a film on TV, I’d feel guilty. If I was going for a meal, I’d feel guilty or walking my dog in the park because that’s something we always used to do together … I’d feel guilty looking at trees,” Izadi says, sipping her latte.
Their son, Aryan, has experienced several panic attacks and has been close to a nervous breakdown. Ashoori was nearly done building a machine for their daughter, Elika, to mechanise her macaroon business, but that has been abandoned, keeping her in financial limbo.
Even Izadi, who works as a freelance Farsi and English translator, suffered financial losses after she was so depressed she couldn’t get out of bed.
But over time, she found that daily evening walks with their rescue dog Romeo helped. “I walk my dog, listen to a (science fiction or film) podcast … sometimes I feel perfectly okay but once or twice I just, for no reason, broke into tears and just sat and cried for half an hour,” she tells me.
A few of Izadi’s neighbours in Lewisham have been supportive – some hold a mass every few weeks for Ashoori in the local church. Many in Horn Park, where she walks her dog, know about her situation and ask Izadi how she’s doing, but there’s “nothing practical”, she says. “I mean, what can they do?”
Lewisham East MP Janet Daby openly supports Ashoori’s cause and has addressed the matter in Parliament but there has been little acknowledgement from other government officials.
In Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case, diplomatic protection, insisted upon by former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt helped her spend the final year of her five-year sentence at home before she was slammed with fresh charges and put back in jail. But a meeting on Thursday with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Izadi tells me, “went badly”. Izadi was told that even though her husband qualified for diplomatic protection, they weren’t going to provide it to him at this point—they didn’t say why and chose not to expand on the issue. She had hoped for more compassion and optimism but she felt the meeting was “almost like an obligation that they had to fulfill”, she says.
On November 30, Izadi is due to meet Keir Starmer and plans to call on him to publicly declare his support for the UK to pay the £400m debt so that Ashoori can be released.
ELL asked the Foreign Office to comment on Izadi’s claim that Liz Truss refused to grant Ashoori diplomatic protection.
A spokesperson said: “Iran’s continued detention of Anoosheh Ashoori is wholly unjustified. We call on Iran to end his suffering and allow him to return home to be reunited with his wife and children. The Foreign Secretary raised Anoosheh’s case with the Iranian Foreign Minister on 8 November, along with the cases of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Mora Tahbaz, and will continue to do so.”