An Australian citizen is among at least 40 foreign nationals now held in Iranian jails amid pro-democracy protests across the country – and an escalating violent response by regime forces.
A spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the Iranian-Australian dual national had not been arrested for taking part in the anti-regime protests but confirmed that Australian officials had been refused access to assess the person’s welfare.
A Dfat spokesperson told Guardian Australia: “The Australian government is not aware of any Australians who have been arrested or detained for participating in recent protests in Iran.
“The Australian government holds concerns for the welfare of one Australian-Iranian citizen believed to be detained in Iran.
“We continue to seek confirmation of their welfare, and consular access.”
Iran was refusing to accept Australia’s right to access as it does not recognise dual nationality, the spokesperson said.
In comments reported by the state media Mehr News, Iran’s judiciary spokesperson, Masoud Setayeshi, told a press briefing on Tuesday: “So far, 40 foreign nationals have been arrested for their involvement in the protests.”
The nationalities of all of the foreigners arrested were not revealed by Setayeshi, but are known to include citizens of France, Sweden, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands and Germany.
Several sources have confirmed that an Australian citizen is now imprisoned.
More than two months of escalating protest and public unrest have seized Iran after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody in September, after she was arrested, allegedly for wearing her hijab immodestly. In the past week the country’s revolutionary court has issued a slew of death sentences against protesters for their roles in one of the largest sustained challenges to Iranian regime since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
In submissions to a Senate committee examining the human rights implications of the violence in Iran, Australia has been consistently urged to join allies such as the US, Canada, the UK, Germany and the EU in sanctioning regime officials, including commanders of the paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and members of the “morality police”.
Australia has not imposed any sanctions against Iranian institutions or individuals in response to the regime’s violent crackdown on protests to date. But the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, said the government was determined to “continue working with others to build pressure on the regime to cease its brutal campaign against its own citizens”.
In a submission to the inquiry, Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert, the British-Australia academic who was imprisoned by the Revolutionary Guard Corps for 804 days on spurious espionage charges, said she “strongly suspects” one reason for Australia’s reluctance to apply sanctions to Iran and its officials “is due to what is effectively diplomatic blackmail”.
“Iran is known to be currently holding innocent Australian citizens hostage in its prisons,” Moore-Gilbert wrote.
“I suspect that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade opposes applying sanctions on Iran due to the risk that these sanctions may anger Tehran and complicate efforts to free these innocent Australian citizens. Whilst the motive here is perhaps noble, the outcome is not.”
Moore-Gilbert argued that in not imposing sanctions on Iran, Australia was actually creating a perverse incentive for Iran to take Australian citizens hostage, knowing that those prisoners could be used as leverage to deter sanctions or other actions.
“We simply cannot allow the consular cases of a handful of wrongfully detained Australians to dictate Australia’s response to Iran’s violations of human rights on a mass scale. The only way to dis-incentivise state hostage taking is to take action to demonstrate that there will be negative consequences for regimes like that of Iran which undertake this practice.
“Sanctioning Iranian officials involved in hostage taking, and adopting a tough line on Iran’s human rights abuses more broadly, would signal that Australia stands by its values, and cannot be blackmailed.”
Moore-Gilbert, an academic at the University of Melbourne, was arrested at Tehran airport in 2018 and sentenced to 10 years in prison on espionage charges by Iran’s revolutionary court. She was freed in November 2020 in a complex prisoner swap involving four countries.
The Iranian regime has arrested other Australians: the travel bloggers Jolie King and Mark Firkin were detained in July 2019 – allegedly for flying a drone near a military base – and held for three months in Tehran’s Evin prison. And an Australian-Iranian, Shokrollah Jebeli, died aged 83 in Evin prison in March, more than two years after he was jailed over a financial dispute. Amnesty International accused the Iranian government of torture by denying him urgent medical care.
Two New Zealand social media influencers who were detained in Iran for almost four months were released in October and allowed to leave the country.
The Iranian government’s response to ongoing protests has grown increasingly hardline, with widespread violence and reports of protesters being shot dead in the streets by authorities. At least 378 people, including 47 children, have been killed in the nationwide protests, according to the Norway-based non-governmental organisation Iran Human Rights.
A fortnight ago Iran’s judiciary announced that 1,024 indictments had been issued in relation to the protests in Tehran alone, Amnesty International said.
Twenty-one of those indictments were for security-related offences punishable by death. Iran executes the second highest number of people of any country each year, behind only China.
Protests against Iran’s regime – in power since the 1979 revolution – erupted when Amini, who was arrested by “morality police” for breaking Iran’s strict rules on wearing the hijab, died in custody, reportedly from severe head injuries. Iranian authorities allege she died of a heart attack but have been accused by protesters of a cover-up.