Australian-British academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert doesn’t like sitting still.
After returning to the University of Melbourne as a lecturer following the completion of her PhD in 2017, one of the first things on her to-do list was to get a standing desk for her new office.
“She didn’t like the thought of sitting down all day because she felt that she was stagnant,” said Chris*, a friend and colleague of Dr Moore-Gilbert.
For more than two years now, the rising star of Middle East studies has been forced to stay very still: confined to two-by-three metre cells in Iranian prisons, often in solitary confinement, sentenced to 10 years for spying.
Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert. Source: Supplied
“I wouldn’t wish what she’s going through on anyone,” said Jessie Moritz, a fellow Middle East scholar and friend of Dr Moore-Gilbert.
“It’s a really horrific deadline to mark that she has been there for over two years now. It’s an unacceptable deadline.”
Dr Moore-Gilbert was arrested at Tehran Airport on 13 September, 2018, as she tried to leave the country after appearing at a conference in the Iranian city of Qom.
A fellow attendee had allegedly reported her as “suspicious”.
She then spent almost two years at Tehran’s Evin prison before being moved in July to the notorious Qarchak prison, commonly described as the worst female jail in the world.
Many experts say the charges and duration of her sentence are arbitrary, with her only crime that she was an Australian citizen in the wrong place when Iranian authorities decided to undertake so-called “hostage diplomacy”.
The Australian government has so far declined to give updates on efforts to free Dr Moore-Gilbert, beyond categorically stating they do not accept charges upon which she was convicted.
Meanwhile, friends and colleagues say they are growing increasingly concerned for her welfare with every passing day.
Raised in Bathurst, a regional city about 200 kilometres north-west of Sydney, Dr Moore-Gilbert was a high-achieving high-school student who was awarded after topping the state in HSC .
She described the winning work, titled "Self-Portrait 2005", as an “exploration of the individual’s inner conflict and turmoil, and the mechanisms we use to maintain order in the midst of external chaos”.
Dr Moore-Gilbert's HSC visual arts project, titled ‘Self-Portrait 2005’, topped the state. Source: Art Gallery of NSW
After high school, she completed her undergraduate studies at the prestigious Cambridge University in the United Kingdom - where she met WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, an encounter she later detailed for Bathurst’s local paper - before returning to Australia to undertake her PhD at the University of Melbourne.
As a lecturer in Islamic Studies at Melbourne University’s Asia Institute she specialised in politics, authoritarianism, and protest in the Arab Gulf states; particularly Bahrain, a small island nation neighbouring Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Friends told SBS News she was a determined, intelligent, and “exceptionally studious” young academic who was on an upwards career trajectory.
“It actually makes me realise how much work I don’t do,” her friend Chris told SBS News.
“She’s not judging you, but you’re thinking ‘she’s behind me and she’s working hard so I should really do the same thing’.”
Dr Moritz said Dr Moore-Gilbert is “incredibly bright, [but] also incredibly humble”.
“There’s a lot of egos in academia, but Kylie is not one of them. She’s really a delight to be around,” she told SBS News.
Her hard-working nature also influenced the students who took her classes at the University of Melbourne.
A former student, Sarah McGovern, said the final year Middle Eastern politics subject she took under Dr Moore-Gilbert was a rare class where everyone showed up to tutorials having done the weekly readings.
“Because you knew the class debate would be really probing, vigorous, and engaging. You would not get by on generalisations or poorly formed opinions,” she said.
“You had to be sharp as a tack because Kylie expected that of her students.”
But Ms McGovern also remembered her former tutor as friendly and easy to talk to.
“She was an incredible juxtaposition of intelligence and grasp of her issue, topic, and specialty, as well as being so laid-back and charming.”
She was also passionate about going beyond theoretical study and experiencing the world and events she was studying, former colleagues said.
But when she travelled to Iran in 2018, no one anticipiated what would follow.
“It’s kind of always on your mind, but in her case, it did seem fairly low risk,” Chris, also an academic, said.
“I have seen criticism, especially online, saying ‘why would you go if you know there’s a risk?’ And the obvious response is that if academics didn’t go and find out this stuff, we wouldn’t know what was going on.
“You wouldn’t assume if you were doing a friendly university subject that you would end up being put in jail as you’re trying to leave the country.”
‘Fortitude and strength’
Roya Boroumand, executive director of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran, says Dr Moore-Gilbert’s arrest “fits a pattern” of arresting innocent foreigners and holding them hostage.
“There is no doubt that if they had a shred of evidence about something wrong that Kylie has done, we would have had a televised trial,” she said.
“If they haven’t done that, if she has been charged behind closed doors … it means there is nothing.”
Dr Moritz, who specialises in Middle East politics, also believes her friend’s arrest had nothing to do with her work.
“I really don’t think she was targeted because of her research, I think she was targeted because of her citizenship,” she said.
Foreign minister Marise Payne declined to comment on Dr Gilbert-Moore’s situation for this story.
In one of her most recent statements on the case, Ms Payne said efforts to bring her home were continuing without pause.
“[We] want to see her returned to Australia as soon as possible,” Ms Payne said in September.
Dr Moore-Gilbert’s family have also declined to speak to media. On the two-year anniversary of their daughter’s arrest, they issued a brief statement describing her “fortitude and strength”.
"We love Kylie very much and we remain strong," they said.
"For those who also know and love Kylie, they will recognise her fortitude and strength. We know this strength remains with her throughout this ordeal."
But there is, at present, no indication of when the ordeal will end.
The abrupt move to Qarchak prison - with a crowded population of between 1,200 and 2,000 inmates, some who have contracted COVID-19 - indicates a worsening relationship with Iranian authorities.
Qarchak Prison, on the outskirts of Iran, where Australian academic Dr Gilbert-Moore is currently held. Source: Google Maps
“It’s punitive, there’s no doubt,” Ms Boroumand said.
“Because Kylie was moved there, now the whole world knows of Qarchak. It’s not a smart move, they must be angry at her.”
Last month, Iran's Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights , revealing harrowing conditions inside Qarchak, including overflowing sewage, undrinkable “salty” water, poor quality food delivered in small quantities, and wards transformed into quarantine facilities.
In 10 letters smuggled out of Evin Prison, Dr Moore-Gilbert shared small glimpses into her life inside, including her deteriorating psychological and physical health and being barred from visits and phone calls.
“I am entirely alone in Iran. I have no friends or family here and in addition to all the pain I have endured here, I feel like I am abandoned and forgotten,” she said in a letter dated 18 September, 2019, according to the .
In another letter, dated 20 June, 2019, she says she has only had one four-minute phone call with her family in three months.
Ms Payne has previously said the government is committed to securing Dr Moore-Gilbert's release through diplomatic channels, but many of her friends are calling for more to be done.
“Iran could release her tomorrow if they wanted to … she doesn’t need to serve the full sentence that she's been arbitrarily given,” Dr Moritz said.
“And that means it’s going to be up to the Australian government to negotiate to get her out, and if they are successful at that she could come home tomorrow or next week.”
In the meantime, they wait for good news.
“I got to see her progress from PhD to really starting to set herself up,” Chris said.
“I don’t know where this will lead now, but it’s definitely stopped in its tracks someone who was on their way to being really remarkable.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.