For a man who spent five years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Anoosheh Ashoori laughs a lot.
Snatched off the streets of Iran while visiting his sick mother in 2017, the British-Iranian father was interrogated and held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.
But, last week, almost out of the blue, he and fellow detained dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe were put on a plane and reunited with their families in the UK.
In 2020, his wife Sherry sent me recordings of Anoosheh explaining from prison how his life had turned into a living nightmare.
Arriving at their family home in Lewisham, my colleagues have taken over the tidy living room with cameras and lights for Anoosheh’s sit-down interview with political editor Beth Rigby, which you can watch here.
Two years after Sky published his voice recordings, Anoosheh greets me with a warm handshake. We all fall into easy conversation about how surreal the situation is and how today’s filming will work.
It is his first TV interview and he is understandably nervous. After some reassurance, he seems to pause, then laughs and jokes: “Well, this won’t be an interrogation.”
This dry British humour turns out to be a big part of Anoosheh’s personality; the 67-year-old is remarkably quick to smile and laugh despite what he has been through.
One of his first things he ate on his return to the UK was fried chicken from south London’s much loved Morley’s chain. I asked what else he had.
With relish, he replied instantly: Five Guys burgers. Cool refreshing beer. The very first thing he ate? A full English breakfast, with extra bacon.
He’s already begun to unpack and explains he left almost everything he had to his fellow inmates. So what did he save? What does a person bring back from, in his words, “hell”?
He dashes off and returns with a detailed woodcarving he made in prison. Anoosheh, a retired engineer, is a man of science – and apparently science fiction. He’s a Star Trek fan and the work he holds up is his own hand sculpted in the Vulcan fashion. It’s captioned with a fittingly hopeful slogan: ‘Live long and prosper’.
He explains while others in the workshop made religious works, he made wooden portraits of British icons like Charles Darwin and David Attenborough.
But it turns out Anoosheh is also a hopeless romantic. Among the carvings is one for his wife – it’s two cats with their tails entwined, hearts surrounding them.
‘A debt, not a ransom’
When the interview begins, Anoosheh relives the moment he was taken to an interrogation room and accused of spying for Israel, a country he has never visited. It didn’t make sense to him.
“It took quite a while for me to discover why I was there. It was revealed that it was the debt,” he says.
The UK has owed Iran a £400m debt dating back 40 years. After it was paid last week, Anoosheh and Nazanin were freed.
“That was not a ransom, that was a debt that the British government owed and it should have been paid. And if it had been paid, none of this would have happened,” he says.
Nazanin has said she feels it was wrong it took six years and five foreign secretaries to secure their freedom, something Anoosheh says he agrees “a hundred per cent” with her on.
He feels strongly the civil servants “did their jobs fantastically” but he is disappointed in Britain’s leaders, including the prime minster.
Anoosheh made a direct plea to Boris Johnson in one of the voice notes Sky News published two years ago, something Anoosheh says he faced punishment for.
“I risked my safety but I managed to convey that message to him.
“Unfortunately he did not expend even five minutes to give a telephone call to my family.”
Now he is free, Anoosheh says the prime minister has been in touch.
“Now he’s eager to see us. How would you interpret that?
“I think that there’s a bit of opportunism involved in it.”
Asked about Anoosheh’s comments, a government spokesperson did not deny that the prime minister failed to contact the family.
The spokesperson said: “From the Prime Minister down, this government has been committed to securing the release of Anoosheh Ashoori.
“It was always entirely in Iran’s gift to do this, but UK ministers and diplomats were tireless in working to secure his freedom and are delighted that he is now home.
“Our Consular team were in close regular contact with Anoosheh’s family, with officials available to them at any time throughout his ordeal.”
A big part of the reason Anoosheh is speaking out is not just to tell his own story of living with bed bugs, the smell of open sewers, and getting dental care from a dentist known for “pulling ten teeth in ten minutes”.
He feels guilty he has managed to leave while others remain.
“Many of them are innocent and their lives have been destroyed,” he says.
Morad Tahbaz, a British-US national who remains detained in Iran, was someone Anoosheh chatted to frequently in prison.
“I feel so bitter that he was not on the plane with us. I will not be quiet until he and the other dual nationals are released,” he says.
Not everyone can be released, some of those he knew took their lives in prison. He has written their names down in his diaries.
Anoosheh himself made several attempts to take his own life.
He shows us the scars on his wrist, saying: “After four years they are starting to improve a little bit.”
Hopeless, he also tried to starve himself to death. He lost 17kg in 17 days.
“I stopped eating. For four days I did not even drink water… I think that when you’re not there any longer, you don’t exist and then you don’t feel pain. That was my reasoning to myself.”
It was striking to see this man who had been so quick to laugh recount these horrors. His gaze begins to drift off to the side. It is as if the memories he is recalling are so strong they are distracting him while he speaks.
What happens next?
Sherry and their children Elika and Aryan campaigned tirelessly for their loved one’s release.
They seem shell-shocked by the whole thing. They had been at one of their lowest points in their fight for Anoosheh when they got the news. Within about 48 hours of that he was with them.
Sherry knows it will take time for the family to settle and adjust, saying: “There are very little things that struck me… He asked can I use this mug and I said ‘you know, these are all our mugs, you don’t have to ask permission’.”
Elika and Aryan, who are both in their thirties, share their father’s ambition to campaign for the freedom of those left in Evin prison. But they plan on taking a break now dad is home.
“Obviously it’s great. It’s been so chaotic that it’s hard to sit down and deal with the emotions. It’s a slow process trying to deal with your feelings but the relief when you wake up in the morning is fantastic because there is no worry,” Elika tells me.
Aryan agrees, saying: “It’s still hard to really feel anything because well, you’re constantly being asked how do you feel so you don’t actually have time to process it.”
What’s next for the Ashoori family? They’ve missed many milestones and celebrations we take for granted. Where do you begin making up for five stolen years?
Luckily, they have a good place to start. It’s Anoosheh’s birthday next month. I think it’s going to be a party to remember.
Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org