‘You cannot put the pain into words’: Anoosheh Ashoori on his detention in Iran

Show caption Anoosheh Ashoori with his daughter, Elira, wife, Sherry Izadi, and their dogs, Chickpea and Romeo. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian Iran ‘You cannot put the pain into words’: Anoosheh Ashoori on his detention in Iran Arrested on spying charges and held for four years, Ashoori describes interrogation and threats to his family Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor Thu 24 Mar 2022 20.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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Sitting in the front room of his house in south London, surrounded by his wife, daughter and four excited dogs, Anoosheh Ashoori admits that at night he reaches out to touch his wife’s hand to reassure himself that she is really there.

In Evin prison in Tehran, over the previous four years one of his worst nightmares was to dream about her, and wake up in his “coffin ”– as beds were called by inmates in Evin – to realise she was not by his side and might never be again.

Sentenced to 10 years for spying in 2017, the 68-year-old British-Iranian was released last week along with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. During his five-year incarceration “hope was the only emotion that kept me alive and from insanity”, he says.

In his first newspaper interview since his release he criticises UK ministers singling out Boris Johnson’s “blunder”, and wondering if British ministers had spent just one day in Evin they would have acted earlier to pay the £400m debt that led to his and Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release.

Ashoori travelled to Iran in August 2017 to see his mother who had just had a knee operation. “One morning after about 10 days I went to the market to have the zip of my suitcase fixed and, as I walked down to the bottom of the hill, a car pulled over. Four people got out of the car and asked me whether I was Mr Ashoori. I said ‘yes’, and one of them took my suitcase, and they pushed me in the backseat. Two guys sat in the back and two in the front.

“As we entered the motorway towards the east of Tehran, one of them handed over a piece of paper. It was headed anti-espionage department. It was a warrant for my arrest. They handed me a blindfold and told me to put it over my head, and then they ordered me to rest my head on one of the men’s lap, so it was disorientating, and then the noise died down, and we reached a building.

“I did not know what was going on. I was completely perplexed. And then it is almost like having a heart attack. What have I got to do with spying? What have I got to do with any of this?

“They started interrogating me, and saying if I did not cooperate they would take me to Evin jail. Then they took me back to my house and they took the laptop, my phone and hard drive. Then they took me to a prison and strip-searched me.

“I was then taken to a cell for two days and left alone. All I could hear was shouting. The suspense is terrifying. It starts hitting you. And then my interrogation started, sometimes 10-hour sessions.

“They would say: ‘Talk,’ and I would reply: ‘What should I talk about?’ Anything. And then they tried to make me write my guilt down, and ironically the paper they gave me said at the top ‘your salvation is in your honesty’. So if you tell the truth you will be acquitted.

“But during the past 68 years you cannot find a shred of evidence that I was politically active.

“They would show me pictures of [his wife] Sherry, and multiple pictures of my daughter and said you will never see them again. I told the interrogator: ‘You cannot reach them. They are in Britain’, and he replied: ‘Do you remember Shapour Bakhtiar, the former prime minister killed in Paris. We can reach anybody’.”

His desperate situation seemed to trigger suicidal thoughts. “I remembered pictures from Auschwitz that people had died from starvation. So I quietly decided not to eat.”

He pretended to eat his food but in reality flushed it down the toilet. The guards intervened after 17 days when they realised he was rapidly losing weight. “I started crying because I thought with another month I would achieve my mission and die.”

His interrogators put him in cell with three other people for the first time. Eventually he was put into room 121 – six metres (19.7ft) by eight metres – with 17 other people.

Ashoori with his wife, Sherry, at their home in south London. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

It was here for the first time he was allowed to speak with his wife. “But she had an operation on her thyroid and I could not recognise her voice. I thought it was an impostor and told her to give a sign that it was her, so she gave her nickname. Only she and I knew it.”

All the time there was his interrogations. Even now he says he cannot understand what his interrogators were doing since they knew he was not a spy, but just trying to break him into giving a confession.

“The interrogator would say: ‘If you don’t cooperate we can extend this stay in here for years and years. You will see spring come, summers come and autumns come,’ and then you start to form a bond with your interrogators. It’s amazing you become happy to see him.”

When they felt they had extracted all they could, his inquisitors wrote a report to the main interrogator. “When we met, I was crying so hard and he was smiling, saying he was indifferent. He said: ‘I do not have any compassion whether you are an infant or a 99-year-old woman’. The guard I saw was crying too”.

Once his interrogation with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was over, he was taken to a larger dormitory, hall 12, containing other dual nationals charged with spying.

“Many of the people were highly educated. They formed poetry societies, a short-story writing society, a macro-economics society. There was a diplomat that taught Spanish and a doctor with a PhD in physics. I wrote a 3,000 page diary.”

He also built a shelter in a little patio outside hall 12. It became known as Ashoori’s corner. “I had my tea or coffee and people would come to sit with me and chat. I gained a reputation for being discreet, and people would come and confide, and empty their hearts.”

The shelter was heated by putting cotton strands from a mop into the lid of an empty bottle of cough mixture, filling the lid with smuggled alcohol disinfectant, and then using the strands as a wick. “Alongside I grew some morning glories, some white, and some pinkish. I dried 100 of them. I thought to myself, if I am ever released I will give one to every person that helped me recover my freedom.”

There is a pile of them on the table in the front room, along with his marquetry, including his picture of the Mona Lisa, and portraits of David Attenborough and Charles Darwin. “It was how I fought insanity and rage.”

An abstract of the Mona Lisa made in prison by Ashoori. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

It was in the larger hall with his fellow inmates that he began to piece together why he had been arrested. “It was the first time, for instance, that I heard Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s name.”

But the sense of injustice and loss began to tell. “Anytime I rang Sherry I had difficulty talking to her. I had a lump in my throat. I knew that if I talked I would burst into tears. You cannot put the pain into words. It’s impossible to explain what it is like to be stung like a bee, unless you have.”

It was only after two years when he was finally sentenced to 10 years, and his case publicised by the Iranians, that he and wife decided to follow Richard Ratcliffe and campaign in public.

“For two years the Foreign Office advice was to keep away from publicity. If we had not listened, maybe we would have got a better result earlier. I really admire Richard Ratcliffe, and if it was not for his joint effort with Sherry we would still be rotting in there.”

He makes a distinction between UK Foreign Office officials, for whom he has the highest praise, in particular the negotiator Stephanie Al-Qaq and the British ambassador Simon Shercliff, and ministers.

“Why that blunder by Boris Johnson that ended up with Nazanin staying a number of years when she could have been released? You expect leaders to make the right decisions on time. You expect someone to lead his nation – to do his job correctly. Why did they not acknowledge us as hostages? I asked them: why won’t you refer to us as hostages? I never had an answer.

“It is hard that the same time when you are in Evin and you know your presence is related to this debt the UK government owes. Is it such a big job to pay this debt? Would those ministers be able to stand even one day of their life in Evin? If they could feel what it is like maybe they would have made the right decision much earlier. You cannot imagine yourself in that hell, that cesspool.

“My birthday is on 8 April but I will not celebrate it. I cannot celebrate it until everyone is out. I sat in the VIP lounge at Tehran airport and I saw Nazanin come in. Right up to the last moment I expected others.

“I know I am not going to be the last person to end up in this hell that I have just left, so if I do something that takes us one small step away from tyranny then that will be worthwhile.”