A Danish travel vlogger was one of four Europeans released by Iran last month in a prisoner swap. In an exclusive interview, Thomas Kjems has told the BBC what he experienced in detention and how he feels guilt for being exchanged for an Iranian diplomat jailed in Belgium over a bomb plot.
It seemed like wherever Thomas Kjems travelled last year soon descended into conflict or crisis.
The 28-year-old embarked on a hitchhiking adventure from Denmark to Ukraine in January 2022. But shortly after he arrived in Ukraine the Russian invasion began.
He then decided to go to Armenia, where his interest was piqued by neighbouring Iran. That September, the Iranian embassy in Yerevan gave him a tourist visa.
But his arrival in Iran coincided with the death in custody of Mahsa “Zhina” Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman detained by morality police for allegedly violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code.
Her death sparked nationwide protests, which Mr Kjems encountered in almost every city that he visited.
“I had these rules to avoid any conflict and anything political in Iran. I told myself: do not go near military sites or government buildings, do not take photos of them or videos. And then I added that I shouldn’t come near any demonstrations,” Mr Kjems told the BBC.
But he did not evade the gaze of Iranian security forces. In early October, intelligence agents arrested Mr Kjems in his hostel in Tehran. He was taken to the notorious Evin prison, known for housing many protesters and political prisoners.
“They didn’t tell me why I was taken. They asked me: ‘Why did we take you?’ I was a bit confused and I said: ‘I did a few videos, I don’t know why.'”
A prosecutor then forced him to sign two papers written in Persian, he said.
“I didn’t know what I was signing. [But] basically I was agreeing that these accusations were true.”
Mr Kjems was accused of participating in the protests and filming them, which was considered an act against Iran’s national security.
Inside Evin, he was housed with several Iranians also detained during the unrest. He braced himself for a gruelling ordeal, yet he experienced unexpected kindness.
One of his cellmates was Ayatollah Abdolhamid Masoumi-Tehrani, a cleric critical of Iran’s supreme leader who was arrested in Tehran that October.
“We were hoping Thomas would not judge Iran based on the actions of those who kept in him prison,” he told the BBC in a video call.
Mr Kjems said the ayatollah gave him a portion of his own food every day. “It was a small gesture, but in prison it’s a very big gesture,” he added.
Another of his cellmates was Mohammad Boroughani, a 20-year-old protester who was convicted in November by a revolutionary court in Tehran of the charge of “enmity against God” and sentenced to death.
Boroughani was accused of attacking a security guard and setting fire to a government building. Amnesty International said his trial was an “unfair sham”.
Mr Kjems said he was in the cell the day when Boroughani was informed of his death sentence. “When I asked why he was upset, my cellmates told me his detention was extended for another month. I tried to give him pep talk.”
A few days later, he found out the truth.
“I was just shocked. I remember he told me that he tried to hit one of those riot police officers, but he didn’t. There were other people in the prison who got a death sentence for one Instagram story.”
Mr Kjems said intelligence agents did not physically harm him, but that he heard distressing accounts of prosecutors subjecting fellow prisoners to brutal torture.
In June, after seven months in custody, Mr Kjems was told by prison officials to pack his stuff and leave the cell. He was driven to Mehrabad airport in Tehran and boarded a private plane bound for Oman.
He had been released by Iran following mediation by the Omani government. Two Iranian-Austrian dual nationals, Massud Mossaheb and Kamran Ghaderi, and the Belgium aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele were also freed as part of the prisoner swap. The three men were serving prison sentences after being convicted of espionage – a charge they denied.
At the same time, Iranian diplomat Asadollah Assadi was released by Belgium, where he had been serving a 20-year prison sentence for plotting a bomb attack on an exiled Iranian opposition group’s rally in France in 2018.
Mr Kjems said he “felt a lot of guilt” after learning that Assadi had been freed, adding: “This whole exchange is an ethical dilemma.”
His Danish lawyer, Sam Jalaei, said he was innocent but that such cases could not be solved through the legal process in Iran alone.
“From the start we knew this is a political issue. That’s why we were in constant contact with Danish foreign ministry and Danish intelligence service.”
Mr Kjems said that after seven months in prison he only wanted to go home and taste his mother’s coffee.
While sipping an espresso at a cafe in Copenhagen, he said: “Now that I know how the system works in Iran, how they use foreigners as a currency for exchange or for money, I would never ever go back.”
Source : BBC