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My British friend was imprisoned in Iran after the UK government seized their oil tanker. Now they won’t let him go

The Independent logo The Independent 28/08/2019 John Chua
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On 11 August, my friend Kameel Ahmady, a respected visual anthropologist and a dual citizen of Iran and Great Britain, was arrested by Iranian authorities who threw him into the notorious Evin Prison without any formal charges.

Apart from the initial news about the arrest, the lack of subsequent media coverage, analysis, and outrage is frightening. With the British government not yet issuing a formal statement, people cautioned me about saying anything publicly that might upset possible secret negotiations between Iran and the UK for his release.

Sorry, but I can’t stay silent. Given the Tory government’s poor record and fumbled diplomacy in securing the release of several other British prisoners held in Iran on trumped-up charges, I despair. To borrow the slogan from another campaign from another era, “Silence = Death”.

Through my work as a documentary journalist and cultural scholar, I got to know Kameel over many years. We bonded as the only two male academics researching and filming female genital mutilation (FGM) survivors and cutters outside Africa. Kameel focused on Iran while I documented other parts of the world. The UK claims to be one of the foremost advocates against FGM. Yet here is a key British expert in this field kidnapped and nary a word from Whitehall.

I reached out to Jasmin Ramsey, communications director of The Centre for Human Rights in Iran, who sums it up his situation succinctly: "Why was Kameel Ahmady arrested? More than one week into his detention, the authorities have refused to give even his wife information about his case. What we do know is that he chose to stay in Iran to lawfully conduct academic research on important social issues at a time when security agencies are detaining researchers and dual nationals to silence them and use them as bargaining chips for Iran's dealings with other nations.”

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Kameel’s pioneering work in both female genital cutting and child marriages was influential, leading me to later discover that the two phenomena can sometimes be found linked together, as it does in communities as diverse as the Emberá in Colombia, Dagestanis in the Russian Caucasus, and even cultish white Christians in USA.

They are manifestations of the universal relentless control of females and sexuality. While Kameel’s research similarly showed these deplorable abuses of children in Iran, his publications had the consent from Iran’s Ministry of Culture, with even some Iranian religious leaders condemning FGM.

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The only reason for Kameel’s arrest is the fact that he is also British. Now that the UK have released the Iranian oil tanker seized off the straits of Gibraltar, it remains to be seen whether Iran will fulfil their side of the bargain. The British seizure of an oil tanker initially pleased Donald Trump. However, this sentiment has now morphed into displeasure, with the US unsuccessfully trying legal means to prevent its release. The situation will only escalate if America takes more hostile action.

What Boris Johnson will find as he pivots towards America and away from the EU is an unreliable and erratic ally in Donald Trump. Kameel’s kidnapping shows that the United Kingdom, left almost without allies in the days running up to Brexit, have few dependable friends. British interests are better aligned with the EU’s policy on Iran, particularly a nuclear deal that promotes the moderates in Iran who are no friends of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Revolutionary Guards were said to cheer the collapse of the deal as it would allow Iran to once again develop nuclear weapons.

All right thinking nations should condemn the detention of innocent hostages in a struggle between global powers. But there are many things the UK government can do now to lessen the tension, including compromises and negotiations, but foremost publicly distancing itself from the American hard line position on Iran.

John Chua is a documentary filmmaker whose film 'Cut: Exposing FGM Worldwide' features an interview with Kameel Ahmady in a segment on FGM in Iran

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