In June 2019, French academic Roland Marchal decided to fly to Iran to spend a six day holiday with his partner. Within moments of landing in Iran, Roland was arrested at the airport by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the IRGC. He was taken to the notorious Evin prison where he would spend the next nine and a half months. On 20th March 2020, Roland was freed and flown back home to France in a prisoner swap deal between France and Iran. This is an example of Iran’s hostage diplomacy. On this week’s episode, we are joined by Roland Marchal himself.
We discuss his arrest, his academic background, how the IRGC treated him, what Roland endured during his time in Evin prison, getting a lawyer in Iran, the Free Roland Support Committee, use of the term “hostage”, should the French government be doing anything better as well as academic freedom.
If you prefer, you can watch the video version of this interview on YouTube.
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[00:00:00] Daren Nair: Welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. We work to free hostages and the unjustly detained around the world together with their families. We share their stories every week and let you know how you can help bring them home. I'm Daren Nair and I've had the honor of campaigning with many of these families for years.
[00:00:24] These are some of the most courageous and resilient people. People who have never given up hope. People who will never stop working to reunite their families. And we will be right there by their side until their loved ones are back home. Thank you for joining us. And now let's meet this week's guest.
[00:00:48] Welcome to this week's episode of Pod Hostage Diplomacy. In June 2019, French academic Roland Marchal decided to fly to Iran to spend a six day holiday with his partner. Within moments of landing in Iran, Roland was arrested at the airport by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, also known as the IRGC.
[00:01:10] He was taken to the notorious Evin prison, where he would spend the next nine and a half months. The Iranian regime has a long history of detaining innocent foreign and dual nationals like Roland on trumped up charges, and then using them as bargaining chips to extract concessions from their home country.
[00:01:28] In Roland's case, the home country would be France. This is state sponsored hostage-taking also known as hostage diplomacy. Six months later in January, 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron had a phone call with the President of Iran at the time, Hassan Rouhani. During this call president Macroncalled for the immediate release of Roland Marchal.
[00:01:53] Two months later on the 20th of March, Roland was freed and flown back home to France in a prisoner swap deal between France and Iran. This is an example of Iran's hostage diplomacy, plain and simple. Today we have the privilege of being joined by Roland Marchal himself. Roland, we're so happy you're home.
[00:02:14] And at the same time, we are very sorry for what you had to go through. Thank you for joining us. Thank you
[00:02:19] Roland Marchal: for having me.
[00:02:21] Daren Nair: Can you please walk us through what happened to you?
[00:02:25] Roland Marchal: Well, as you said, I mean, I was landing on the 5th of June, 2019, uh, in, uh, Tehran airport. And, uh, I was preparing my visa because you, you could buy your visa on arrival.
[00:02:40] I was, uh, taken to a room by, uh, some, uh, some people, I didn't know already who they were at first, uh, actually took me quite some time to know who they were. And then I was interrogated for the, whole um, you know, I landed mid-afternoon so up to, uh, late evening uh about nine, 9:00 PM. I was, uh, they stopped the, uh, interrogation I was brought to, I think a military camp to a camp where I spend a night in a cell.
[00:03:12] And the day after in the morning I was brought to Evin where uh, uh, I, uh, to there was, uh, I met a prosecutor one on speed that time I had the different allegations against me, and then I had to give up my civilian clothes, get the jail uniform, and I was put in a, in a cell alone, uh, um, to, um, then, uh, I was interrogated for the following weeks and lasted nine months and a half, as you said,
[00:03:45] Daren Nair: I know you're a researcher well known for your studies of the civil wars that have ravaged the horn of Africa.
[00:03:52] Can you talk to us about your background?
[00:03:54] Roland Marchal: Yeah, well, actually I have, uh, I, I did my master degree on, on, uh, Iran. Uh, that was the fashion. At that time. I think, it was 19 82, 83, if I remember. Well, so the, it was the, um, uh, you know, Islam and politics in Iran before the Iranian revolution. So like a thousand, so other students.
[00:04:18] Uh, and, uh, that's the way I met the person I was going to meet in, in in Tehran, uh, because we, we, we, we basically wrote the dissertation together. Uh, that's my, uh, first and last moment on Iran. Then after I was at Strasbourg university, I moved to Paris and then some years after I started, uh, I was already working.
[00:04:46] So, but I start, uh, I always start, uh, my, uh, postgraduate studies to get my PhD on, on that time. That was on the horn of Africa that was on civil war in a, in, uh, in Africa with a focus on the horn. Which is, uh, how, I became recruited by the national center for scientific research. And so I work at quite, uh, quite long on, uh, quite for quite some years on Sudan, Somalia, which we are, uh, Djibouti, Ethiopia a bit.
[00:05:16] And, uh, and then I extended after 2000 on central Africa with Chad and Central African Republic.
[00:05:24] Daren Nair: Did the IRGC, um, use your background as an excuse to arrest
[00:05:30] Roland Marchal: you. It was something complicated because, uh, I, I, well my feeling, my opinion is, uh, at first they believed that, uh, it was, uh, this, this, uh, background was a legend that actually I was working on Iran.
[00:05:50] But, uh, I had to hide it to everyone. So including my own colleagues at the university, everyone. And, uh, so they, they, they say that I was managing a ring of spies in Iran and, uh, that I was a very good expert on Iran, Iranian politics and stuff. I think they had the problem of, uh, how could someone, uh, who knew a bit about Iran not be working on Iran because uh, you know, as good Iranians, uh, they believed that Iran was the center of the universe, which of course is not, we all know that is the small city center of France.
[00:06:30] That is the center of the universe. So basically, uh, uh, so that's where the, the, the, the funny thing in that disaster was that. At the beginning, uh, in my, uh, my interrogators claim, I was working for the, for the French secret services. But, um, by the end of June, uh, uh, when they were talking to the French embassy in Tehran, they were saying that I was working for CIA.
[00:07:00] So, you know, I had already too many business cards in my poor hands, but still, I stay, I stay prisoners. So, so the, the story change and, uh, they never really, um, uh, I, I doubt they believe I was really working on Iran, but that, you know, I think they were testing. Maybe they were learning their own methods of interrogation and as well.
[00:07:23] Uh, uh, the, they were just spending times, I think it was a training for some of those officers.
[00:07:30] Daren Nair: Yeah. So I understand that, um, at least from other hostages, they say that if an interrogator gets you to confess to something you didn't do, they get rewarded. There is an incentive for them. They get promoted, uh, because, now we've got a good prisoner we can use as a pawn, as a bargaining chip we've got him to, confess to something on camera that he didn't really do.
[00:07:55] What are your thoughts on that?
[00:07:56] Roland Marchal: Yeah, the, the, well, actually you have at the very end of my stay, uh, the, I was a released on Nowruz. So it was Friday, uh, 20th, uh, March 20, 20, but, uh, on Thursday afternoon, Uh, you know, I was expecting to go to court and so-and-so, and I hadn't had interviews for interrogation for, for quite some weeks.
[00:08:23] So they, they came to me and they say, uh, uh, you have to, you will have a new, uh, Interrogation session, but this time you will, you, you need to wear your civilian clothes. So I was put in a, in a room with a big lamps and camera. And so they were recording a very long, uh, interrogation, uh, that, uh, lasted for hours, uh, by, uh, by, uh, my two main interrogators.
[00:08:54] So related to my career, Uh, my, uh, my, my links with, uh, intelligence agencies and then about the condition of my detention. I think they wanted to have a record, uh, especially on the condition, uh, in which, uh, I have been detained in case, uh, in programmes as your's, I would claim something different.
[00:09:21] Daren Nair: So I understand they did something similar to Dr.
[00:09:24] Kylie Moore Gilbert, the British Australian academic as well. They recorded a video and they used that as propaganda to air on Iranian state TV and support this false
[00:09:34] Roland Marchal: narrative. Yeah, it's more than propaganda. It's memory, institutional memory.
[00:09:39] I think that they do for every detainees, uh, in that part of Evin, because, uh, we were actually, I was detained in a, in a section of Evin. Evin is a major, uh, uh, prison in Tehran. But, but you have different wings and one is, well, you have, the more people are detainees that have been been sentenced. I wasn't sentenced, I actually didn't go to court, but I was taken in a wing that was fully controlled by the, uh, the Pasdaran and they.
[00:10:14] were actually the intelligence service of the Pasdaran, uh, and, uh, for all people were there, uh, The prospect. Uh, what I learned is the prospect would be that at one point you will go to this session, with camera and you will have to, uh, to answer all kinds of, uh, basically a a kind of summary of, all questions that have come up in your different interrogations.
[00:10:41] For me, that was months of interrogation that may explain why it was so long. Uh, you know, part of it was very civilian, I would say. Not hostile to me. Another part was very hostile to me on the third part. They mentioned that I should speak freely, um, that, uh, they didn't want to interfere with whatever, uh, assessment I add on my detention conditions.
[00:11:08] So it was quite strange, I must say because I, um, when I did so I wasn't aware that it was my last day or my, uh, in, in jail. So for me, I was just waiting, uh, uh, the court that that was planned to take place a month, a month and a half after.
[00:11:28] Daren Nair: So for our listeners, Pasdaran is another name for the IRGC, the Iranian Islamic revolutionary guard.
[00:11:36] Um, so you mentioned Evin prison. Evin prison is notorious for its deplorable conditions, uh, for torture for just general abuse of prisoners. There was a hacker group that recently hacked the CCTV of Evin prison and it was on the news. They showed, uh, the guards just beating on prisoners. Can you talk to us about the deplorable conditions you were being held in within Evin prison?
[00:12:01] Roland Marchal: We have to be, uh, again, I'm an academic, so I have to pay a lot of attention to the truth. The truth is, uh, I, I did, uh, I suffer a lot. Never ever they touch me. I suffer a lot because I happened to be, uh, slightly, uh, claustrophobic. So, which means that if you put me in a small room, I don't care to be alone, but I care about daylight.
[00:12:33] About space. And if you put me in a very more cell with 24 hours, uh, artificial light, no way to see the sky then, um, I get a panic. And so I don't, I lose control of my body. I start crying. I start suffocating and to and so I had a number of crisis due to that, I requested many times to be uh transfer in a place where I could have a daylight and sun, they, always refused, but, but you know, compared to, uh, other, uh, jail conditions in other countries, I doubt that is the worst.
[00:13:21] Now concerning torture. Uh, I haven't been tortured. I was at a different moment because I changed several times of cell. I was put with other Iranians and sometimes foreigners, people who were accused to be Daesh, um, to, um, to No one in the jail. I was, were declared that they were tortured. It doesn't mean anything it's what you have to understand is, uh, it does.
[00:13:55] It just mean what I said and it mean that there were many other cells where people could have been torture or could not have been tortured. I have no idea, but, uh, we were so isolated. That it was extremely difficult to have any sense of what was happening beyond the walls of our cell or the walls of my cell.
[00:14:19] You hardly here any noise, uh, you know, what, what you, uh, uh, you know, when you are alone in the cell, you have to walk a blinded. Uh, you, uh, so it's, it's very difficult. Uh, I will, as I said, uh, I had, uh, I suffer quite a lot, um, psychologically because of this. Uh, but, uh, but physically, uh, I never, never, ever, anyone touched me in a hostile manner.
[00:14:50] Um, to, um, for those who were with me, they were allegation about someone who died in jail that died because of torture, but it was an allegation again. Uh, you know, I'm, I'm an academic, so I have to say you, you need a proper investigation. And to, and I know at one point I had to undertake a small hunger strike Um, to, and then, uh, the guards were actually, uh, uh, very, uh, concerned because my health wasn't good.
[00:15:24] Was actually pretty declining at that moment. And they are the ones who called the Pasdaran. To, to, to convince me to stop. So I got, uh, I got eventually an evening, someone came, I had a discussion with them about why I was doing my hunger strike and explained my situation is the first moment I learned that, uh, the, the, the idea of exchange was again in the agenda.
[00:15:56] Um, and then I stopped because, because I didn't want to die on, they didn't want on the, and I knew that for them, it wasn't ready the most important.
[00:16:05] Daren Nair: So when you say you, you learn about the exchange. This was when an interrogator took you aside and said you were being held to put pressure on the French government to release an Iranian engineer arrested in France for violating sanctions.
[00:16:19] Roland Marchal: Yeah, it's actually not exactly what I was told, what I was told is, uh, I wouldn't get any book. I wouldn't get any special treatment because we are the, I had a few advantage for sometimes I wouldn't be allowed to call my family. I actually wasn't. I wasn't able to call my family, I think in nine months and a half maybe three times.
[00:16:42] On the promise that that will be able to, to, to call every week or two weeks, it never happened. And they say, I would, I would not be allowed anyway because my detention conditions should mirror. What this iranian detainees detainee was facing in France. It was a good reason. It was very rational. And you know, when you are in a situation where everything seems completely arbitrary and irrational to have some sense suddenly in why people behave the way, people behave in front of you, uh, image, then, uh, it's, it's something like, um, you know, refreshing, it makes you feel that, uh, you know, you, you're not completely mad.
[00:17:30] On the, on the system is not so absurd.
[00:17:33] Daren Nair: Again, we're very sorry for what you had to go through in Evin prison and in Iran in general. Um, you also mentioned in other interviews that you didn't have a sense of time. You couldn't tell what it's a, what time of the day it was. And you were also losing your memory in prison.
[00:17:57] And when you were freed, you, you mentioned that you started watching, movies and news, just to kind of regain that memory. Are you able to talk a bit more about.
[00:18:07] Roland Marchal: Yeah, well, basically, you know, it's something very well known by all psychologists is, uh, you, when you put in, you cut from your normal environment, you lose part of, uh, your memory, a number of, of, uh, you know, facts or names related to my work.
[00:18:26] Uh, uh, you know, I said the name of certain African presidents, for instance, uh, I suddenly was, wasn't able to remember names of people. I met in conferences when I traveled here or there. So suddenly everything become like a blank, you know? I wasn't. I knew that I should have remembered, but I wasn't able, and I wasn't lying to my interrogators.
[00:18:54] I was just unable. So the and this is largely due to the, uh, the condition of your detention. You're the, you don't have anything to do. You're cut from everything. Uh, you, as I said, uh, you're you under drugs. I was under drugs because I wouldn't have survived without them. Uh, and so, uh, you, you, you, you get, uh, uh, you get the sense that you, you are on your body trying to survive your detention.
[00:19:25] Um, and to a certain extent what happened, uh, in September on nearly this moment of, uh, of, uh, the year, two years ago, I was transferred in a, in a better room. I had, uh, I could, there was a window so I could have daylight. Very small backyard. I could walk in on that, on that as well. One of the detainees and there were two, but one has a perfect English, the long experience of being in Evin on, uh, on the, explain me how the system who were the people who had arrested me, where I was staying in Evin, um, what was the role of my lawyer?
[00:20:06] I couldn't understand. I couldn't meet my lawyer or actually I met my lawyer, but we weren't able to discuss my case. He was used in asking me questions about my health. And I wanted to, to understand why those people were asking, keeping, asking stupid questions about my problem and what I was doing and why I couldn't discuss the, the facts, uh, the, the precise, uh, uh, prosecution and so on.
[00:20:39] Um, so he told me that basically this lawyer is powerless he's just there to give a sense that, uh, you're you're around. So he could maybe communicate to, uh, the embassy or to my family. My family never heard of him. And, uh, but the embassy yes. Was aware and he was just trying to check that, I wasn't collapsing in jail
[00:20:59] Daren Nair: So you bring up your lawyer. And I know that the problem with the Iranian judiciary is people don't get to select their lawyer themselves. The lawyer has to be pre-approved by the judiciary and these pre-approved lawyers tend to be quite biased. So when it came to your lawyer, were you able to select an independent and objective lawyer for yourself?
[00:21:24] Or was it selected for you?
[00:21:25] Roland Marchal: No, it's actually, it's very complicated. You have a kind of, you have a list of lawyers who are credited to political cases or intelligence or whatever security. I don't know the way it's, uh, it's framed in Persian. And so the, uh, my institution, the CNRS. My research institution paid for the lawyer.
[00:21:50] The lawyer was actually contacted by a contracted by through the French embassy in Tehran, but he worked through another lawyer who spent quite some time trying to meet me at Evin and who wasn't allowed. So, uh, I didn't know at first, uh, but, uh, when I came, when I was released, so, um, you know, I was very, to.
[00:22:18] First, I'm an academic, uh, in my whole life, I have been once in, uh, in, uh, in a case for defamation and I won the case. That's my only contact with the judicial system in France or anywhere. So I wasn't really an expert on that, but I was shocked by the fact that I wasn't allowed to talk to him about my case on, he didn't seem to be very interested talking about the case.
[00:22:45] And so, uh, when I was released, they explained me that actually the lawyer first hadn't the right to raise the case with me and that up to Christmas as which mean, uh, nearly more than six months, my case was, uh, just one page on which was written my name on my birthday. Uh, nothing else. Then the lawyer, uh, you know, basically was tasked with checking my health.
[00:23:17] Um, there were moments where the situation wasn't very good for me. And so he tried to come, he come several times. He come after for two weeks trying to meet me just a few seconds or few minutes just to check and he wasn't allowed. So he, I think in his own. Way, try to help a lot. He got humiliated very often and to, but never, ever, we had a legal discussion, a discussion you could have with your attorney, uh, talking about, uh, about your case.
[00:23:56] There was a moment in which, uh, you know, I, I, we met on a. In front of my main interrogator, I asked to discuss my case and then the interrogator said that wasn't possible. Then I start arguing saying that, uh, I have taught, you know, Sharia law to my students. And then this is not Islam. This is. Absolutely contrary to Sharia law and then the other was a bit, uh, unhappy with the comments.
[00:24:29] So he said that Iran was different than that. Uh, and then, um, basically the, uh, the meeting was stopped. I was, I was brought back to my cell for the arrogance of my behaviour. But, uh, but this is, this is very difficult situation. Uh, the lawyer, as you said, sometimes they, they, they are not so independent and sometimes whatever they try to do, they face so many difficulties, so many pressure that they, they choose to have to complain with a system that is not really fair in any sense.
[00:25:05] Daren Nair: So were you actually sentenced what was the charge?
[00:25:10] Roland Marchal: Well, uh, exactly. I do not remember anymore. That was, uh, uh, you know, uh, attempt to, uh, to disturb the state security. I don't know really, uh, then, uh, you know, the, the thing is, um, I, I couldn't see, or, you know, I, I, I went, uh, uh, over the years, maybe, I don't know, less than six, maybe eight.
[00:25:35] 8 times to Iran, I stay mostly a week maximum. Uh, so I had problem to see what Iran is such a fragile state that, uh, a tourist came eight times and, is able to affect the security of the country. Uh, but, uh, the, the. I didn't know on which fact this allegation was made. Okay. And that was, as I explained, just before the why I wanted to talk about my case with my lawyer, uh, I met the judge, uh, in early February.
[00:26:13] For just maybe 20 minutes. Yeah. basically he was obsessed with my lawyer on who was paying my lawyer on whether my lawyer was paid in France currency Iranian currency. Um, and then, uh, when I start asking about my case, he said, this is not the moment. Uh, you will come in a, in a, in a few weeks.
[00:26:35] And there was supposed to, to go to the judge, uh, early March on, uh, I was brought to the court to the revolutionary court, but actually I stay in, in the car and, uh, I, wasn't allowed to get out of the car and I wasn't brought to the judge, uh, then, uh, I was told that the judge got sick, got infected by COVID-19.
[00:27:03] Um, that my, uh, on anyway, when I was in jail, what you said that my, uh, my case would be, um, would be view, uh, discuss, uh, sometimes just after Nowruz and then it became end of April. Um, and so I knew I was never in court. I never sentence, which means I have been expelled from Iran. I'm not for those people.
[00:27:32] I'm not innocent. I guess I'm guilty because that's basically what, I'm, what they wanted me to be. Uh, but, uh, which means that I can't go back to Iran as well, because they, they could put me in jail again and restart the whole process.
[00:27:47] Daren Nair: Were you ever, or did you feel that you were at risk of getting COVID-19?
[00:27:54] Roland Marchal: When we did, we knew something was getting wrong from February. Our guards, some of our guards got panicked by, by this, but we didn't know much. Uh, I think the first time we got mentioned of it was after, uh, the, uh, uh, Parliamentary elections. In in, in, in Iran because, uh, I Ayatollah Khamenei made a speech to a comment the result and the low, uh, the low rate of votation, and then, uh, said that, uh, uh, people use these fake argument of, uh, the, these, uh, these sickness.
[00:28:41] Uh, those specific sickness. I, I, I don't even remember whether he mentioned the name and that was the first time I heard about it. Then, uh, the guards were panicked, but, uh, I, it was a moment that I was really alone. So I didn't know anything later on when I was released, because I had a very, uh, I needed surgery. It was extremely painful.
[00:29:09] And to, so the, as I said, the guards were taking care of me. And so they propose me to go to an hospital and I didn't want to go because I wanted my embassy first to be aware that I was moved to a hospital because I didn't want to disappear. And, uh, so eventually after weeks of shouting in my cell, because it was extremely painful, uh, uh, I was able to meet the Consul, the French Consul.
[00:29:39] So I asked for. The embassy clearance to go to that specific hospital, which, which happened to be a good hospital that I didn't know. But later on I was told it's a, it was a very distant hospital. Um, the French embassy actually never got me. The never sent me the green light. Not because they thought I needed and they knew I needed the operation, the surgery, but they knew that hospitals in, in Iran where the most dangerous places because of COVID-19.
[00:30:12] So I had to keep, um, my pain, uh, for months. Uh, before I, uh, went back to France and then even in France, it took me three weeks before I get, uh, I could get surgery again because of COVID-19 and the fact that it wasn't vital. So therefore even despite all pain, they say you have to manage. And, uh, because they thought maybe hospital would be overwhelmed.
[00:30:43] And so the beds should be kept for those people.
[00:30:48] Daren Nair: When you were in Evin prison, you shared your cell with some environmentalists. Now there are lots of foreign and dual nationals that are still being held in Evin prison. And in other prisons in Iran, can you just talk to us briefly about the ones that you met when you were in prison, including these environmentalists?
[00:31:08] Roland Marchal: You know, uh, okay. I have one thing maybe that is difficult to understand, uh, from outside is, I don't speak Persian. I know a few words like anybody. But, uh, but really I wasn't fluent at all in Persian which means I had a lot of problems, uh, communicating with every, everybody. So including the guards I, uh, at the beginning of my stay in this wonderful place, I, I didn't know that I had to wash my plates, I, uh, to, uh, ask for shower those kinds of things.
[00:31:45] And so I had to ask for, uh, clothes to change. Um, which made which made my life extremely difficult for the first week, because I couldn't, I had the feeling to be clean on me. I had so many other things. So slowly and I was alone, I was in isolation, complete isolation for for weeks and weeks. So. Later I was moved to set two different sets.
[00:32:15] So eventually I could speak to people will use some English, sometimes very good English because they were absolutely fluent or maybe a nationality nationality related to UK or USA, uh, and others who learned in Iran and knew enough to explain me. As I said, they were for me, uh, a great uh, support. because they explain me so many basic things.
[00:32:45] I hadn't understood like the condition of in my cell, what I have to do in front of the guards. What I shouldn't do in front of the guards, what I could request from them, what I shouldn't request from them. Uh, and the logic if any of this very arbitrary system. So those people were in jail for more than 20 months when I met them.
[00:33:16] They were in very bad shape. Um, there, they eventually went to court when I was with there at least two of them and and very, uh, you know, it was a pure illustration of what they are told me, uh, before in the sense that their lawyer wasn't allowed to enter the court to add. To attend their and to advise them on their, on their answer.
[00:33:45] The the the answers to the questions by the judge. Uh, even at the time of the sentence that the lawyer was not allowed inside. So you add the number of, uh, behaviour which where you're not, not exactly. Um, uh, I would say usual for anybody, uh, uh, you know, like me, uh, not studying Iran and, uh, not. Knowing much about the, the Pasdaran, and this helped me.
[00:34:20] Uh, I would say paradoxically, uh, because it showed me that, uh, you know, I wouldn't, I wouldn't have, I wouldn't, uh, I wouldn't have to behave or I wouldn't have to assume rationality up to the time the sentence was pronounced and up to the time I was put in a normal jail with normal people. And then maybe the system would get more rational and less arbitrary.
[00:34:53] Daren Nair: There was a media campaign calling for your release, a public media campaign. This was led by the Free Roland support committee. Now I know the concept of support committees is pretty unique to France and was created by a former French hostage. So that if families were coerced into keeping quiet about a hostage case, this independent support committee staffed by friends, colleagues, and activists who will lead the public campaign calling for the hostages release.
[00:35:21] And if someone intimidated the family or told them off, they could just say, well, we didn't do anything. It's this independent support committee we don't control them. So, can you talk to us about what a support committee is? Because based on my experience as a campaigner campaigning with many hostage families, this is a very good.
[00:35:41] Concept, and it is very helpful to the families and to the hostages themselves. And it will be good to see this kind of support committee replicated in other countries as well, because could you just explain to us what the support committee is?
[00:35:55] Roland Marchal: Okay. What what's happened is we, where we are two French academics arrested at the same time, uh, because of the same case, uh, which is very much the person with whom I was eventually exchanged.
[00:36:09] Uh, my, uh, our colleagues. We were part of the same research laboratory on, so our friends, some colleagues here where I am today, uh, mobilise themselves, try to, uh, you know, get support on because we are part of certain professional associations. Those, uh, association at the European level played as well, a role trying to, uh, uh, promote attention to our case.
[00:36:39] This was done largely the, uh, independently of my family and, uh, um, uh, of the, uh, the ministry of foreign affairs. Actually, the, the, the, the concept was that this committee would exist by itself. Uh, would have actually a few contacts with the, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, more contact with my brothers where I have a brother living in Paris who was connecting with them from time to time.
[00:37:11] But, uh, but the, the, the, the, the thing was basically that, um, they were working by themselves. It came at a time and I think that's maybe one reason this committee was more successful than others where the freedom, academic freedom are under threat in many countries in the world. And that was seen as just one more illustration of this, uh, uh, dynamic, very dangerous, uh, trend.
[00:37:41] Uh, so therefore they, they, they did act with the press and they did answer a lot of questions they did provide data whenever necessary, they did talk about our case. I was, I was slightly on the margin. Uh, for one, uh, reason, uh, which is that having nothing to do with Iran. Maybe, except for the Pasdaran, uh, but having nothing to do with my government so that I would be, I was kind of collateral damage and I would I would be, uh, released, uh, easily and without a very expensive price.
[00:38:21] It's the same. So, uh, actually, uh, there were different attempts to release me very early on in, uh, July. In September, uh, notably there may have been another one before this release in March, 2020. And the the concept was let us not talk about his detention so that, uh, you know, it doesn't raise the price and is what my colleague did for, for quite some months, except that eventually in October, mid-October 2019 a journalist a French journalist published an article mentioning that I was actually, I was the second French academic, uh, to be, uh, on, in, in jail.
[00:39:13] Actually in the same place as the first one. And so, uh, but, uh, yes, the, the, this, uh, support committee was, uh, exceptional, in many ways. And I think, uh, we have to thank, uh, many of my colleagues, uh, here in Paris, but as well in France, in in Europe who, uh, you know, use their connection with journalists to make sure that the case would not be forgotten.
[00:39:41] The French government, I must add, uh, did it's it's, uh, it's part. I'm not, you know, uh, discussing African, African, French policy towards the African continent. I know I'm known to be very critical of the French policy, but I should say that on this very case, uh, the French government and especially the president, uh, did everything possible to release us.
[00:40:07] And I hope he would continue to do that because still one is in jail in Tehran.
[00:40:12] Daren Nair: So you called yourself an academic hostage. State sponsored hostage taking also known as hostage diplomacy is growing and the Iranian regime are not the only ones doing this. We've seen this with the Chinese Russians and Venezuelans as well.
[00:40:27] It's one of the main reasons I started this podcast. The reasons why it's called Pod Hostage Diplomacy, because I wanted to highlight this growing unacceptable trend. So when you were held many people, especially in the French government and media, were reluctant to call you a hostage. What are your thoughts on this?
[00:40:49] Roland Marchal: Okay. You know, the point is when you negotiate, you, you, you don't negotiate, uh, is like what just happened in Canada. Uh, you know, diplomatically, it wasn't the best approach to talk to, uh, the Iranian authorities. Uh, I say I was an academic hostage, uh, basically, uh, because, uh, you know, the allegations about my, uh, Uh, also other jobs or the occupation Spain for here for, because I had a number of business cards, thanks to the imagination and the paranoia of these, uh, Pasdaran, uh, is, is largely based on the fact that if you meet the French diplomats it's mean that you're working for his country or our country, and therefore you have to be a spy.
[00:41:40] And, uh, I was trying to. You know, to explain them that that's part of my work work I'm. I'm in, uh, countries that are facing civil war. So usually there is some kind of international intervention as a diplomatically or military needs. So you have to talk to everyone. And they, I did that, like many of my colleagues um, but for them wasn't enough.
[00:42:07] It was, oh, it was too much. I would, I would say so. So they are the, I, I, at one point I tried to in a meeting with the Consul, I say, you have to organize a meeting with those people to T to tell them what is our job? What is what is usual for us to do so that they, they don't get excited for wrong reasons.
[00:42:31] But, uh, I, you know, it's where I have these, uh, uh, very, uh, contradictory, uh, feeling that on one, on one side, you know, my interrogators weren't stupid people. So I doubt that they did not understand what I was saying. On the other side, they were so paranoid about everything that, uh, you know, any, uh, any email or any, uh, any meeting could be over, interpreted it, you know, on these one thing, we teach our, our in your, in our universities.
[00:43:05] We, you shouldn't over-interpret facts. You should see them for what they are or not bring a big conspiracy, uh, just because you, you get something that may surprise you, but, uh, but so that was, uh, um, many, most of the allegations they made on me was based on my profession. The fact that I'm an academic. Now, uh, you know, Iran is proud of it's.
[00:43:34] Iranian authorities are proud of the, um, the Iranian, the rule of law, whatever way we, uh, we call it here. And so certainly to talk to them, uh, the best way, certainly not to start using, uh, names such as hostage. They always believe that they are right. They believe their system is the best in the world, which, which happened in many country in the world, including mine.
[00:44:01] Uh, but, uh, but as we, we know it's small and big countries, it could be, uh, you know, the Gulf states, you haven't mentioned them. I have seen, uh, remember. Uh, uh, you know, problematic the, uh, freedom of speech and academic freedom is in those countries. I believe. Uh, this is very a, a huge, huge problem today on the, as I said, at the very beginning, the trend is actually very problematic and very negative.
[00:44:33] Daren Nair: you bring up a good point that, uh, when you're speaking to the Iranian authorities themselves, you can't use the word hostage because it makes diplomatic negotiations harder, and I've seen the same case, with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British hostage in Iran. Now former UK foreign secretary Jack Straw said the same thing, uh, on a radio interview, he said she is a hostage, but you can't call her a hostage publicly, or at least the government can't do it because then it makes negotiations harder with the.
[00:45:05] Hostage taking country, the country that took the hostage. And it's the same thing with the United States. They have a role, a specific office within the state department called the U S special presidential Envoy for hostage affairs. Now it's good that they're naming the problem and that is absolutely necessary, but the problem is.
[00:45:26] The country that takes our citizens hostage. They don't want to meet with this person because by meeting with this person, they acknowledged that they have hostages. So, uh, you bring up a very good point that even though you were a hostage, the government can't call you a hostage because the country that took you hostage wants to save face, or doesn't want to admit that.
[00:45:51] And it therefore makes negotiations harder. Now I know you said you're very grateful for the French government, uh, for bringing you home for securing your release, that they did everything they could. Do you believe that there's anything they should be doing better when it comes to cases like yours for existing cases and for the future?
[00:46:13] Roland Marchal: Really? Um, I don't know. Um, I would say even if I knew, I'm not sure I would, I would mention it because one thing, uh, that, uh, you know, when you talk with, uh, people, uh, in my condition, again, you have to realize when I was released, I didn't know anything. Absolutely anything about what had happened in France with the support committee, what, uh, the, the French diplomacy did to help my release.
[00:46:47] And, uh, it took took me weeks and, and I would say even months to learn from my friend, my friends, my family, my colleagues to learn pieces here and there, trying to, you know, rebuild the narrative about. Well, what happened once I was detained in Iran what I can tell you, I can tell you about the, the wards in my jail, few people I met, I was able to talk to them and, um, the food, my clothes, that's all.
[00:47:21] You know my interrogators, but I hadn't any, uh, you know, I talk to my family all in all maybe not even five minutes in nine months and a half. I didn't know anything. I just knew that, uh, they were alive. And so it's very difficult afterwards to, uh, you know, rebuild, uh, the whole history because of course the French diplomats won't.
[00:47:51] Say much about what, what they did and, uh, what, uh, what were the actual terms of negotiations and to then the others they know, uh, you know, part and parcel of the story. And so you have to be careful not to, again, you say, go into, uh, the big narrative. Why actually thinks might have been quite simpler. So you, um, I'm still in a, in a, in a situation where I don't say much and I don't pretend to say it to, to know, uh, because, uh, because everything I have learned seems, uh, have it's own grey zone of, you know.
[00:48:39] Uh, personal belief more than facts. And this is another thing that is, uh, very painful, uh, in the, in with time is that, uh, you, you, you, you can't rebuild this past, you know, you something has disappeared and, uh, escaped from you. I don't know, whatever you try to make sense why I lost nine months and a half of my life.
[00:49:07] For what reason a number of things happened? It's something I won't, I won't have any answer because I'm not sure someone knows, uh, and the few who may know part of the answers they want to talk to me.
[00:49:24] Daren Nair: Again, we're very sorry for the trauma you experienced and on the other hostages as well. And we're doing everything from our side to raise awareness of this issue and to mobilize people to help out, um, based on what you've pieced together and the fact that you had this great support committee that was able to mobilize people.
[00:49:48] Within France and other countries as well around the world, basically. Do you think there's anything else the French media or the public can do to help? Um, what are your thoughts?
[00:50:02] Roland Marchal: It's very difficult. I don't know. I really I don't know the, um, you know, I'm not part of the support committee for my colleague. And, um, and I want people to understand, of course I care very much about her fate. I don't want to be part because from time to time, When I start thinking or reflecting on what has been happening, I may get enraged and lose the minimum of lucidity, uh, and a fair play and be irresponsible.
[00:50:43] So I do not want to be responsible because what is at stake is no more. My life is her life. Okay. So it's, it's, it's again, something that you, I think you have different levels and to on one level today, it's easier to tackle to address publicly. Certainly the fact that academic freedoms, are under threat. In many countries, not only authoritarian countries or well-known country like Iran, uh, but in, in, uh, in countries like UAE or Saudi Arabia or Turkey and so on.
[00:51:26] And we have to, we have to mention the list is getting longer day after day. And, uh, and we have to do something. To uh, to protect the academics, not on this freedom, not because we need to protect ourselves. Yes, indeed. But, but largely because, uh, academic freedom means, uh, a certain level of freedom of speech and, uh, means as well.
[00:51:51] The ability to, uh, to feed on, uh, inform the public debate about collective choices and this is what, uh, academia. Should do is not only the only thing academia should do, but it's part, it's certainly one of its duties and these duties is increasingly under threat.
[00:52:14] Daren Nair: We're almost at the end of our interview.
[00:52:17] Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?
[00:52:19] Roland Marchal: I think, you know, one, one aspect I, uh, really regret? Because, uh, uh, you know, When, um, our, uh, support committee maybe because, uh, it was European. It had a relation with a number of, uh, academics from other countries, uh, near Europe pay immediately attention to, uh, to other, uh, detainees. Um, as into a key points, because at that point into, in Turkey university is extremely concerning and, uh, on one thing, uh, which, uh, really hurt me is, uh, uh, I saw, uh, you know, uh, sometimes where we saw people supporting us because it was Iran.
[00:53:21] Those people would have stay silent had it been UAE or Saudi Arabia.
[00:53:29] And so I, I believe, you know, the, when I talk about academic freedom, it's, it's a global thing. It's not restricted to a number of countries, certainly not restricted to Western countries. And even in Western countries, even in my country, from time to time, we have, we have difficult questions to ask our ministry or on our authorities.
[00:53:54] Uh, so I seem the point, which I would like people to remember is these, these, uh, focus or these stress on these emphasize on emphasis on academic freedom doesn't mean that only academics should be protected. It just. a way an entry point to discuss the increase, uh, limitation of freedom of speech and freedom of opinion in many countries in the world.
[00:54:28] And this is something that we have to confront and we have to fight against.
[00:54:35] Daren Nair: Roland. As I said at the beginning, we are very happy that you're home. I know it can be quite traumatic talking about your experience in Iran. So thank you for speaking to us today. We really appreciate your time. Thank you for joining us.
[00:54:48] Roland Marchal: Thank you for having me.
[00:54:55] Daren Nair: Thank you for listening to this week's episode of Pod Hostage Diplomacy. We're not just a podcast, we're a community, if you're on Twitter and would like to post a message of solidarity to the families, or have any questions for us, please tweet it using the hashtag #PodHostageDiplomacy and we will get back to you.
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