Ashoori blames UK government for incarceration in ‘valley of hell’

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori arrive at Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, after they were freed from detention by Iranian authorities. PIC: PA

Lewisham resident Anoosheh Ashoori has told mainstream news media over the past week in several key interviews that the British government are responsible for his five-year-long incarceration in the “valley of hell”.

In an interview with the BBC, he told a journalist whilst sitting alongside his wife, Sherry Izadi, that he firstly blamed his captors for his arrest, but also the “British government at the leadership level” for their procrastination. 

He said his release should have come sooner, and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, another Iranian-British national imprisoned for six years, “could have seen her beautiful daughter much earlier”.

Ashoori was grabbed off the street at a market in Tehran in 2017 during a visit to his mother to help her with a knee operation. He was captured by two men and taken into a car, where four men accompanied and blindfolded him on his way to being interrogated. In the car, it was read out to Ashoori that he was being accused of espionage, charges he has vehemently denied. During his capture, he was locked away in a room where nobody visited him for the first few days, and his food was passed through a hole in the door. 

When Ashoori was first captured, he did not know what he knows now – that his incarceration was the result of a longstanding military debt the British government had owed Iran since the 1970s – a victim of hostage diplomacy. 

“It wasn’t me who was important. I wasn’t important to any sides; it was the passport being arrested. But the holder of that passport was me,” Ashoori told the BBC.

The 400 million pound debt was cleared just days before Ashoori and Zaghari-Ratcliffe landed in the UK. 

In Ashoori’s interview with the BBC, he said: “This was a debt that had to be paid. Why did we have to go through all these years? Could they stand even one day in an Iranian prison? If they had actually experienced that, they would have [cleared the debt] much earlier.” 

The family also had to pay a £27,000 fine to Irani officials within 12 hours of his release. The government did not help in covering this and so they raised this through credit cards and loans. 

Ashoori’s daughter, Elika Ashoori set up a crowdfunding page so that the family could pay back the loaned money. The crowdfunder exceeded the loan amount, with the rest of the funds being distributed between the family to get them back on their feet and the rest will be donated to help other prisoners. 

In a video interview with Sky, Ashoori spoke of how he risked his safety during his imprisonment to send a voice note to Boris Johnson via his wife, Sherry Izadi, in 2020 to try and help his release. Boris Johnson never replied, and subsequently, Ashoori was punished for his actions, receiving a second indictment by the Iranian government. 

Ashoori’s family campaigned relentlessly for his release, alongside Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family, whose husband, Richard Ratcliffe, went on hunger strike for 21 days. 

Richard Ratcliffe on hunger strike. Credit: @AryanAshoori

There are still Iranian-British dual nationals who haven’t been released, such as London born Conservationist, Mohrad Tahbaz, who has just finished a hunger strike

Ashoori raised his children in Iran for the first part of their lives but returned to the UK 17 years ago. Whilst Zaghari-Ratcliffe received diplomatic protection during her imprisonment, Ashoori’s was denied.

In an account written by Ashoori, published on the Guardian, about his time in Evin Prison, which he describes as being in the “valley of hell”, he talked about how the cells had bedbugs, rats and cockroaches and how the smell of drains was so “overpowering due to extraction fans that pump air from the building’s bathrooms, kitchens and toilets and three sewage manholes”.

Ashoori fondly spoke to Sky about the prisoners he came to know during his time in Evin, otherwise known as the “University of Evin”. He began a poetry group with several other prisoners and would exchange lessons with individuals who Ashoori said were his “role models”. From holding PhD’s in quantum physics to satirists, economics lecturers, he mentioned in his Guardian recount that the university “has some of the most qualified inmates of any prison in the world”. 

However, these people were suffering significantly. He told a BBC journalist that some people were like “zombies”.

“They just go back and forth in the yard, sometimes, you see them talking to themselves and gesticulating, and they are in their world,” he said.

“When you are in your cell, you’re always looking behind you. You are always trying to remember all the good memories you had with your family.” He told the BBC it was his memories that would keep him going. Otherwise, he would “go insane”.

Ashoori reunited with his family at RAF Brize Norton on March 17. Upon his return, Ashoori’s wife, Sherry Izadi, told the BBC she was “lost for words” and that Ashoori had picked up some “odd habits” in jail. 

From left: Aryan and Elika Ashoori, Sherry Azidi, Anoosheh Ashoori, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe holding her daughter Gabriella, Richard Ratcliffe and Moh Zaghari, Nazanin’s brother, at RAF Brize Norton in the early hours of this morning. Pic: PA

“He keeps asking permission for stuff. To take mugs. I don’t know, very normal things that you don’t ask permission for.”

Ashoori says he keeps pinching himself to make sure he is really back home with his family. “Sometimes I touch Sherry’s hand as we’re asleep to see if this is real if this is happening. And I’m fearful that I may wake up and see that all of it was a nice dream, and I’m still back and still have to wait another six years to finish my sentence.”

The first meal Ashoori had was a full English breakfast, and he enjoyed his first beer in the garden with his family.

 Whilst he is happy to be home, Ashoori says he will not stop fighting and be able to celebrate entirely until all the political prisoners he met during his incarceration are home.

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