Home after nearly five years in an Iranian jail, one of Anoosheh Ashoori’s first tasks is to complete a building project interrupted by his arrest – a ‘hobbit house’ study room for his wife at the bottom of the garden.
How the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) found out about the JRR Tolkein-inspired den remains a mystery. During his darkest days at Iran’s Evin jail, interrogators dropped comments about the project to show they knew all about him, his family and his life in London. The threat was clear: talk – or your family is in danger.
“They said, ‘we know your house inside out’ and they mentioned the hobbit house,” said Mr Ashoori in an interview at his home in south-east London after his return to the UK. “They were giving me indications that they were very close to my family.”
Mr Ashoori, 67, a retired engineer, was released along with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 43, after the UK government paid a decades-old arms deal debt of nearly £400 million ($525.2m) to Iran.
He praised diplomatic staff for securing his release but criticised the UK’s political leadership and said the debt should have been paid much sooner. “If they had experienced one day at Evin prison to see what sort of life we were going through, they would have made this decision years ago,” he said.
His lowest point was when he felt his family was at threat as his interrogators talked about his daughter Elika’s cake business and other details, such as the family’s dog-walking habits.
Most of the information could have been gleaned from social media or hacked emails – but not the hobbit house. The family feared the house was bugged and police were sent to their home after they raised their concerns with Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary at the time.
The inability to protect his family from Evin jail sent Mr Ashoori into despair and he tried to kill himself. His attempt failed when a guard spotted what he was doing through the peephole of the cell.
But the incident highlighted the scale of psychological pressure employed by Iran against dual citizens such as Mr Ashoori who have been used as pawns in a wider diplomatic battle between Iran and US and European governments.
The inmates described themselves as “tenners” – a term used by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his book The Gulag Archipelago to describe the inevitability of a 10-year sentence on security charges imposed by the Iranian judiciary.
“My interrogator once told me, ‘you will see many autumns, many springs, winters. And you'll be with us’,” said Mr Ashoori, who was jailed on trumped up charges of spying for Israel.
“When I told him that they didn’t have any evidence against me, he said: ‘That shows how clever you are’.”
Mr Ashoori was arrested in August 2017 during a visit to his mother, an event that he recorded in his 3,000 pages of prison diaries.
His wife Sherry said the near five-year absence was like "carrying a two-tonne stone on your back" every day as she tried to think of ways to secure his release.
Looking fit and healthy despite his ordeal, Mr Ashoori recounted how the authorities exerted control over inmates through a mixture of punishment, repression and bizarre ritual.
He told of how a single chime over the prison’s loudspeaker system indicated that a person was due to go on temporary leave. Two would indicate someone was being released until the system changed and a chime was sounded for every year the soon-to-be-freed prisoner had suffered.
“There were mixed feelings when someone was released,” said Mr Ashoori. “We would congratulate them and they would say hopefully you will be the next one … that was customary for us.
“But I was thinking that if I was released after 10 years and I crossed my family in the street, we might not recognise each other. Then this bulb starts growing in your throat that stops you talking.
“For six months when I talked to Sherry on the phone I had to fight this thing in my throat to stop me crying, to try to sound normal and stay strong.”
Mr Ashoori used daily phone calls to his wife to highlight conditions in the jail – including a weekly diary for The National during the Covid-19 pandemic and an appeal to the leaders of the UK and Iran for his release from the hellhole.
In return, he was threatened with a return to solitary confinement and had his phone card confiscated for 160 days, breaking contact with his family. “One of the ways that you can keep sane is to be able to talk to your loved ones,” said Mr Ashoori.
In the months before his release, he faced fresh charges of “dissemination of falsehoods” after a phone call to his wife in which he was critical of the authorities. He was summoned to the chief prosecutor and confronted with two CDs of his recorded remarks. The case came to nothing as he was released before he was prosecuted.
He said his experiences have left him stronger and more resilient but “those who couldn’t handle it, some of them ended up in mental hospital”.
Mr Ashoori said he was inspired by books including Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, about how people coped in the Nazi prison camp of Auschwitz in Poland.
He attended classes in poetry, writing and quantum physics run by his fellow inmates. Mr Ashoori crafted marquetry pictures included portraits of his hero Charles Darwin, and Patrick Stewart, the actor who played Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek, one of Mr Ashoori’s passions.
But he remains frustrated that he was stymied in his efforts to raise the plight of Evin’s inmates directly with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
“I took all of that risk to convey that message – not only on my behalf but of all the people who were there – and I was expecting a response.
“Sherry and my kids tried to have five minutes of his time for him to acknowledge that we are there. And this didn’t happen, unfortunately.”
At least two other Britons remain among a group of dual citizens behind bars, including the conservationist Morad Tahbaz, who was supposed to have been released from prison at the same time as Mr Ashoori but was returned to Evin jail within days.
“I urge Mr Johnson – please keep up this good work and finish it. Otherwise we cannot celebrate anything. I've left some very good people behind,” he said.