Diamond at graduation; images courtesy of Ana Diamond
Diamond at graduation; images courtesy of Ana Diamond

Ana Diamond’s fight for freedom

In 2014, 19-year-old Ana Diamond was travelling to Iran to visit her grandparents. Upon arriving in the country, she was detained at the airport and had her passport confiscated. She would spend the next 18 months living in Iran under a travel ban, subject to constant interrogations in government safe houses.

This takes us to 2016, when she was stopped in the street by a van containing plainclothes members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), blindfolded, seated with her head between her knees, and taken to Iran’s notorious Evin prison, where she would spend over 200 days. This month, she graduated from Balliol with an MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies. 

Diamond was born in Iran and carried a dual citizenship, but parted ways with the country when she was a toddler. In 1999, she fled with her father, who had been a writer for the reformist newspaper ‘Salam’. After publishing a report from the Iranian ministry detailing plans to censor the country’s pro-reform press, the newspaper was shut down. This prompted protests which became violent after plainclothes police officers raided a dormitory in Tehran University, killing at least one person. Demonstrations and riots took place across the country, with many casualties.

This turn of events meant Diamond spent most of her formative years in Turkey, Finland, France, and the UK, with both Finnish and British citizenship. She draws an unlikely comparison between her own upbringing as a refugee, and the upbringings of the children of diplomats. Both, she says, have a “kaleidoscope of social identities,” and an exposure to such a range of cultures and experiences that they develop a great talent for empathy. 

When she returned to Iran later on in her life, Diamond would again find herself victim to the regime’s authoritarianism. She can count herself as part of a number of Western citizens who have been held in Iran as political prisoners. A 2022 report from the House of Commons concluded that at least 66 foreign and dual nationals have been detained by Iran since 2010 alone. The government has used these political prisoners as bargaining chips with the West, to help pursue its geopolitical objectives. Diamond describes it as a “lucrative business model” for the IRGC, pressuring governments into paying ransom money as a form of hostage diplomacy, or extorting the victims themselves. 

One such geopolitical objective has been seeking payment from the British government of a debt of £393.8 million which the UK had owed Iran since the 1970s. Prior to the Islamic Revolution, the country had been ruled by the pro-Western Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose government ordered 1,500 Chieftain Tanks and 250 Armoured Recovery vehicles from the UK. After the Shah was deposed Britain cancelled the order, with the Iranian money having been paid but only 185 of the tanks delivered. 

Since then Iran has taken numerous approaches to settle the debt, with many believing that its imprisonment of dual nationals is a ransom to secure repayment. This was the case with British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was charged with plotting to topple the Iranian government and sentenced to five years in prison. She was finally released in 2022 after Foreign Secretary Liz Truss agreed that the UK would repay the debt to Iran, provided the money was ring-fenced for humanitarian purposes. 

At the time of Diamond’s travel ban the Washington Post’s Tehran Bureau editor Jason Rezaian was imprisoned in Iran under false espionage charges. Diamond described her astonishment that she, as a university undergraduate, was being treated the same as a high profile journalist. It’s clear she felt that, unlike a Western journalist in Tehran, she was far removed from geopolitical events. The only commonality between them was both being dual nationals of a Western country judged to be an enemy of the regime.

It also revealed to me that your place of birth is largely arbitrary, and does not automatically define your identity or where you get to call ‘home’.

Like Rezaian and Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Diamond had her personal life upended and left to the fate of wranglings between national governments, each with their own self interests. In 2014 she had been under the impression that her travel ban would be resolved within a couple of days, only for it to be stretched to over 500. She was referred to in Iran as “dokhtar khareeji,” which translates to ‘the foreign girl’. Whilst the phrase was often used affectionately, Diamond felt somewhat estranged by it. “It (also) revealed to me that your place of birth is largely arbitrary, and does not automatically define your identity or where you get to call ‘home’.” 

As Diamond found her life in the grips of uncertainty, no-one was there to help. The Iranian Foreign Ministry informed her that they had no idea about the whereabouts of her passport, or why she had encountered such hostility from the IRGC. Not once did the UK government reach out to Diamond and her family to provide consular assistance during the travel ban. This was despite the family’s best efforts to communicate with them, alongside Diamond’s position as both a British citizen and student at King’s College London. 

As a spokesperson for the Young Conservatives during her university days, Diamond stated that she was “absolutely devastated” by the government’s failure to acknowledge her case in good time, either publicly or privately. 

18 months after her arrival, things became far more serious. She was taken to court by the IRGC, where prosecutors accused her of being a western spy. They levied 52 charges, with 3 of them (espionage, blasphemy and spreading corruption on earth) being punishable by death. Among the evidence cited were photos of her as a teenager at Young Conservatives events with David Cameron and Theresa May, alongside her time on the University of California Education Abroad Programme, and a film project she had undertaken in Jerusalem. 

Diamond spent her first three and a half months of custody in solitary confinement, before being taken to a public ward for about 30 days and then returning to a solitary cell. After around eight months she was finally released from prison, and then acquitted in January 2018 following a visit to the country by then-foreign secretary Boris Johnson. With an emergency passport, she was finally free.

Diamond experienced levels of suffering and psychological torture in prison which I cannot even begin to fully comprehend. She was subject to interrogations lasting as long as 12 hours during which she would hear the screams of a woman being tortured, being told they were from her mother. She also faced virginity tests, and is one of the only dual nationals to experience a mock execution. 

Ana at Balliol College on graduation day. Credit: Ana Diamond

Even when I was facing the worst kind of fear and pain in my life – the kind that paralysed me – I woke up the next day preparing myself for another day.

At that stage of her imprisonment, unsatisfied with Diamond’s lack of cooperation, the guards took her to a smaller cell where she was left for three days. She recalled from stories told to her by family members that this was part of the protocol for an execution, whilst the guards informed her that they would carry out her sentence, which was for crimes punishable by death. She was then transported to a remote location, where she believed she would be killed. The operation was ultimately a torture device, to convince her that she was about to die. 

Her time on the public ward would provide the opportunity to meet female intellectuals who were also experiencing political persecution. Among them was the Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi, who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize this year. Mohammadi has faced endless prosecution and imprisonment by Iran throughout her career of activism. When Diamond met her, she had been detained since 2015. Despite being released in October 2020, she was again sentenced to further prison time in May 2021 for charges including “spreading propaganda against the system.”

Mohammadhi has released numerous reports criticising the conditions faced by women in Iranian prisons, describing solitary confinement of the kind Diamond endured as “white torture,” designed to deprive victims of sensory stimuli and force them into complete isolation.

Diamond referred to her as a “proxy mother” during her time in prison. Narges would cook Ana food, help her write letters to her judges in Persian, and read her Persian literature. Along with some of the other female inmates, Mohammadhi would also run weekly seminars on various topics, be they philosophy, literature, or women’s rights. Diamond was explicitly told by the prison guards that they believed she would be radicalised by the time she spent with the long-term inmates. This in itself shocked her: “they realised my innocence so early on, and yet sentenced me to death five months into my captivity. It was clearly all a politically motivated persecution.”

To this day, Mohammadhi remains in prison. She has just begun a hunger strike, in protest at her denial of vital medical care, which she needs in order to treat heart and lung conditions. 

We had to become our own voice, both in government and in media, because our individual inquiries and concerns did not get very far.

When Diamond was finally released from prison and returned to the UK, she was treated in hospital for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and heart conditions. She would then go on to be a founding member of the Families Alliance Against State Hostage Taking, which was launched in 2019 at the United Nations General Assembly. It seeks to advocate for arbitrarily detained hostages like Diamond. The need for such a group in part stems from the frustrations of Ana and others regarding the limited response from Western governments to hostage crises: “we had to become our own voice, both in government and in media, because our individual inquiries and concerns did not get very far.”

The group has contributed to the passage of Magnitsky legislation in the UK, designed to provide sanctions against individuals who have committed human rights violations. The laws are named in honour of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax advisor whose exposure of corruption and misconduct in Russia led to his arrest and death in police custody. 

Diamond values the opportunity to help others face situations similar to her own, or ideally prevent them happening in the first place. Whilst this will never give her a complete sense of justice, she values the purpose that comes from helping others. 

Diamond credits much of her success post-prison to the mentorship of Sir Terry Waite, a British humanitarian. Waite has previously worked as a hostage negotiator, and was himself taken captive by the Islamic Jihad Organisation in Lebanon, being held for over four years. He was knighted by the king this month, for his decades of services to charity.

Whilst the support from the British government was insufficient during Diamond’s time in prison, the support since leaving has also been insufficient. She has advocated for a compensation scheme for victims, inclusive of both emotional and financial support, to help aid their recovery: “for torture survivors, the world is a very different place, and it takes time to learn how to trust your environment and live pain-free.”

For torture survivors, the world is a very different place, and it takes time to learn how to trust your environment and live pain-free.

Since leaving prison, Diamond has also been able to find comfort through study at Oxford. She has spent the last two years as a Clarendon Scholar, reading for an MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies, with language choices of Persian and Arabic. There’s little I can do to encapsulate her Oxford experience that would be better than referring to her own words: 

“Oxford, and particularly Balliol College, gave my ideas and ambitions residency, and where my solitude found company. I built memories made of solidarity and sleepovers, home-cooked dinners with strangers who became friends, late-night (and last minute) speed writing and translations, and so much more. Oxford was a transformative experience for me, far more than simply a place where I received my degree from. I became closer to nature, and friends with bright and brilliant minds, inspiring activists, great story-tellers, and potentially world-changing scientists. I shared snacks with Malala, spotted Hillary Clinton from across the street, organised neurodiversity workshops, and gave a talk to over 100 people at Christ Church College in honour of Women, Life, Freedom. Perhaps most importantly, Oxford helped me realise that even if you cannot achieve full justice, you can try to prevent injustice – with your work, words, advocacy, and presence. We must make our existence in this world worthwhile, and what better place to start that journey than at university.”

Oxford helped me realise that even if you cannot achieve full justice, you can try to prevent injustice – with your work, words, advocacy, and presence.

Diamond’s story is one of immense bravery; my main reaction upon initially hearing it was wondering how she was able to find the mental strength to deal with everything she has been through. To this, she partly attributes her religious faith.An upbringing in the Abrahamic religions left both Christian and Islamic influences on her, which she describes as having offered her a guiding light and moral compass throughout her life. She was keen to refer to two religious verses, both of which she has engraved on a necklace. She quoted Psalms 46:5: “God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day,” and Surah Al-Baqarah 2:152-3: “Remember Me; I will remember you. And thank Me, and never be ungrateful. Believers! Seek help in patience and in Prayer.”

Ana is well aware of the insurmountable odds she has overcome in surviving her imprisonment: “Had you told me a month before my arrest that I would be enduring over 200 days of solitary confinement, as well as physical and psychological torture… I would have absolutely given up on the spot.” She seems to have surprised herself in her capacity to deal with this level of hardship: “taking everything one hour at a time, mindfully, you realise just how much your body adapts and adjusts to accommodate you to your new environment. Even when I was facing the worst kind of fear and pain in my life – the kind that paralysed me – I woke up the next day preparing myself for another day.”