News World The secret strategies used to get Iran detainee Kylie Moore-Gilbert home
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The secret strategies used to get Iran detainee Kylie Moore-Gilbert home

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Top diplomacy experts have revealed the background tactics likely used to get Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert home from Iran’s most notorious prison.

It comes as Thailand reveals the three jailed Iranians released in a swap were convicted of being involved in a botched 2012 bomb plot. 

Dr Moore-Gilbert, an Islamic studies lecturer at the University of Melbourne, was detained in Iran for more than two years until she was finally freed on Thursday.

Thai authorities made an agreement with Iran to transfer the three Iranian men linked to a wider bomb plot targeting Israeli diplomats back to Tehran.

“These types of transfers aren’t unusual,” Chatchom Akapin, Thailand’s deputy attorney general, told the Associated Press.

“We transfer prisoners to other countries and at the same time receive Thais back under this type of agreement all the time.”

A Thai Corrections Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity said only two of the Iranians were sent home on Wednesday under the prison transfer agreement, while one received a pardon in September.

Under transfer agreements, returnees are supposed to serve the remainder of their sentences in their home country.

Thai officials declined to call it a swap and Prime Minister Scott Morrison has repeatedly refused to confirm details of any such arrangement.

The 33-year-old was facing 10 years in prison despite no evidence of her alleged crimes, which included espionage.

In a statement, Dr Moore-Gilbert thanked her supporters and the Australian officials who worked “tirelessly” to end her “long and traumatic ordeal”.

“I have nothing but respect, love and admiration for the great nation of Iran and its warm-hearted, generous and brave people,” she said.

It’s not the first time Australian authorities have had to fight for years to bail out a citizen locked up overseas.

And given several other Aussies are still languishing in foreign prisons, it won’t be the last.

Australian writer Yang Hengjun has been detained in China for nearly two years. Photo: AAP

How do diplomats help get detained citizens home?

It’s an extremely delicate balancing act.

“Don’t make it more difficult than it already is. That’s the first rule,” said Allan Behm, head of the international and security affairs program at the Australia Institute in Canberra.

“There are many countries in the world where the rule of law doesn’t operate and Iran is one of them. It’s quite common for people to be arrested and to be held in detention for long periods of time before any charges are laid.”

And it’s not only foreigners who risk being arrested.

Elaine Pearson, the Australia director of Human Rights Watch, said: “In Iran, peaceful activists are silenced by arbitrary detention and unfair sentencing.”

Mr Behm, a former diplomat with extensive experience in the federal defence department, said diplomats would have taken “great care” not to offend Iran during negotiations to get Dr Moore-Gilbert home.

“They don’t give publicity to it and they don’t make any public comments that can be taken as critical of the judicial system or legal system,” he said.

“It doesn’t help when you say it’s unfair and unjust. The moment you say to these countries ‘You don’t have a sensible legal system’, they go, ‘We’ll show you how sensible it is – 50 years’.”

Joel Mackay, a campaigner at Amnesty International Australia, said officials fighting to set Aussies free must find a deal that is mutually beneficial.

Those options may include a prison swap, trade deals or the removal of economic sanctions, he said.

In the case of Chau Van Kham, a 70-year-old Australian citizen detained in Vietnam, Australia may instead offer to help solve a territorial dispute.

Australian baker Chau Van Kham was sentenced to 12 years’ jail in Vietnam. Photo: Human Rights Watch

“Vietnam needs some help in the South China Sea,” Mr Mackay told The New Daily. 

“What does that help look like in the context of Chau’s release? Anything you can throw at a country, diplomats will be looking at.”

What to avoid if you end up in jail overseas

Whatever you do, don’t jump on Facebook and slam the government of the country in which you’ve been arrested.

It’ll only make it harder for Australian authorities to get you home.

“In the past, when I’ve been advising people who have been detained in various countries, I advised them to proceed very carefully and not to make strong public statements, particularly not statements critical of the government,” Mr Behm said.

“You can say, ‘I hope it’s resolved soon’ or ‘I’m sure they’ll observe the legal system’ so as not to prejudice the outcome.”

Australian-Chinese TV anchor Cheng Lei has been in detention in China since August. Photo: CGTN

This advice may explain why Dr Moore-Gilbert made a point of praising the “great nation of Iran” after her long-awaited release.

“She wouldn’t want to make the situation worse for anybody else in prison,” Mr Behm said.

“The last thing you can do is pour a bucket on them because they’ll take it out on someone else.”

Know the risks

If you’re in trouble overseas, consular assistance cannot override local law, warns the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

“Australians ought to be very careful with their behaviours overseas, and their perceived behaviours overseas,” said John Coyne, the head of strategic policing and law enforcement at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“Things in Australia that would be considered every day can be deeply problematic – just taking a photo of a military facility can lead to serious ramifications.”

Last year, Perth travel bloggers Jolie King and Mark Firkin spent nearly three months in Iran’s Evin Prison after they were arrested for flying a drone near a military zone without a licence.

Jolie King and Mark Firkin were also held at Tehran’s Evin prison. Photo: Instagram

“If you’re a tourist going on an adventure holiday to Libya or Afghanistan, where there are ongoing conflicts and significant challenges to their rule of law, there is no guarantee (Australia) can negotiate a solution,” Mr Coyne said.

“People should read and be very clear of the travel warnings.”