Iran has launched a media misinformation campaign to justify its claim that the freed academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert was a spy, accusing her of coordinating with a former Bahraini MP to steal secrets for Israel.
A state-run TV outlet this week ran a nearly 10-minute segment on the Australian-British academic that featured several images purporting to show Moore-Gilbert travelling, on her wedding day and with friends and family, in the fullest airing so far of Tehran’s justification for imprisoning her on espionage charges.
Moore-Gilbert, 33, spent more than 800 days in custody until she was exchanged last week for three Iranian prisoners serving sentences overseas. She and the Australian government have maintained that the allegations of spying are baseless, and no evidence of her alleged crimes has ever been presented publicly.
The video report aired on the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting network claimed that Moore-Gilbert had been recruited by Israeli military intelligence, which placed her at Cambridge University, and linked her to several former Israeli army officers and Mossad.
It presented no evidence for the allegations but featured pictures of Moore-Gilbert visiting sites in Jerusalem, in a wedding dress and lined up alongside other women in green fatigues in what the voiceover claimed was a training camp in Haifa. It also featured photocopies of her passport and those said to belong to her Israeli husband.
“As per her training and to avoid any threat, she went to all places where tourists visit and made calls from those areas and took photographs,” the report said. “She was told to hide her travels to Israel and also her contacts with Israelis.”
Jasim Husain, a former Bahraini MP, is accused in the report of teaching Moore-Gilbert Arabic and Farsi, and offering to help her spy on Shia exiles in Iran. “The story is unconvincing to anyone with basic knowledge,” Husain told the Guardian.
The economist is a former member of Al-Wefaq party, which represents Bahrain’s marginalised Shia community and was banned by the kingdom’s authoritarian rulers in 2016.
He said he had met Moore-Gilbert at an academic conference in Brisbane in the weeks before her 2018 visit to Iran, during which she was detained while preparing to leave the country.
“I was aware of her trip, she was going there for a conference, then going to some tourist sites, then engaging in some research,” Husain said.
He believed it was the meetings Moore-Gilbert held in Iran with Shia exiles from Bahrain that sparked concerns in the country’s security establishment. “Researchers normally grab the chance to do primary research rather than secondary,” Husain said.
“Kylie can do no trouble to anyone, let alone a country. She is properly peaceful, a true researcher, an academic, someone who loves the Middle East.”
Iran, a majority-Shia country, hosts small Bahraini exile communities including some the Bahrain government accuses of supporting armed opposition. Husain said he was considered an enemy of some of these groups for his “moderate views”.
“[These groups] think Kylie and I worked to undermine them, to spy on them and pass on information to an intelligence community,” he said. “It is totally not true – zero per cent true.”
He said the report had left him concerned about his security. “Some people believe this nonsense,” he said. “I feel harassed, I cannot live my life normally, go out to communities. I have to be alert, careful – and that’s in my own country.”
Having been sentenced to 10 years in prison on espionage charges in a secret trial, Moore-Gilbert was dramatically exchanged for three Iranian prisoners held in Thai jails. The three men were involved in a calamitous bombing attack in Bangkok in February 2012 that aimed to kill Israeli diplomats but succeeded only in blowing up their own rented apartment and injuring five people.
Diplomatic sources told the Guardian the subsequent Iranian misinformation campaign had been designed with dual audiences in mind: domestically, to shore up public opinion that the prisoner swap deal was a clear diplomatic victory for Tehran; and internationally, to try to justify Moore-Gilbert’s imprisonment.
Moore-Gilbert returned to Australia on Friday and is in a two-week coronavirus quarantine. She posted a message on Facebook on Tuesday thanking her supporters: “My freedom truly is your victory. From the bottom of my heart, thank you!”
Akhtar Mohammad Makoii contributed to this report