If not the beating heart of London, Westminster is at least its gilded chest cavity: the place where the capital’s heart is supposed to lie. Lunchtime in Parliament Square on Thursday, November 11, and a long line of visitors shuffles deferentially across the front courtyard of Westminster Abbey, paying respects, one by one, to tens of thousands of crosses laid to honor the fallen from the British Armed Forces. This weekend is Remembrance Sunday, and each cross is decorated with a red poppy: a symbol used in Britain to commemorate the victims of World Wars I and II and, in the local collective consciousness, an instruction not to forget the human catastrophes of the past.
Just across the street in front of the House of Commons, the lower house of the British legislature, a different memorial is slowly succumbing to the rain. Twenty-six days ago a well-loved MP, David Amess, was fatally stabbed in his constituency of Southend West. Apart from doggedly serving his constituents for almost a quarter of a century, a placard – the last one standing amid the fading bunches of flowers – reminds passersby that Sir David was also a “Tireless Advocate for a Free Iran.”
Flowers laid for Sir David Amess outside the House of Commons in Parliament Square
Today Sir David’s tributes stand at a crossroads. Not just at the imposing junction between the UK’s three branches of power, but at the exact halfway point between two discrete manifestations of Iran, and two Londons as well. Ten minutes’ walk southwest from here is Church House, where the Aban Tribunal is taking place. Ten minutes north is the Foreign Office headquarters, where the deputy foreign minister of the Islamic Republic, Ali Bagheri Kani, is being hosted by British officials.
November 15 will mark one month since David Amess was killed. It will also be two years since the start of the November 2019 protests in Iran. Under the domed ceiling of the Church House Assembly Hall, encircled by a golden inscription of the Biblical hymn Holy is the True Light, Iranian citizens, one by one, are swearing to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to a panel of international judges about what happened that horrific month inside their country.
An official testifies about the torture of prisoners in his city at a Ministry of Intelligence detention center
Many of the eyewitnesses appear onscreen swathed in balaclavas, with sunglasses jammed over their eyes and caps on their heads. They apologize for it. It's because being identified at home could cost their lives. The Aban Tribunal was borne out of necessity. With no prospect for accountability within the Islamic Republic, at least some of what happened can be aired and recorded in a “safe” country, where – perhaps – one or more of the perpetrators could also be brought to justice one day. Covid-19 made it impossible to hold the Aban Tribunal in the Hague. The second choice was London.
That’s one side. On the other, to the north, there’s a commotion in King Charles Street, opposite the south entrance to the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO; that’s the Foreign Ministry to countries that did less colonizing in their pasts). All the media people who weren’t at the Aban Tribunal – and being fair, most of the ones that were there earlier too – are amassed on the pavement. It would be nice for Tehran if the thicket of TV cameras, bright lights and rustling notepads were all for a glimpse of Bagheri Kani’s motorcade, but that’s not the case.
King Charles Street, opposite the Foreign Office
They’re here because Richard Ratcliffe’s chair is empty. It’s 2.30pm now, and Richard Ratcliffe’s chair has been empty for a good 40 minutes. It takes a moment to establish that on arrival, though, because of the sheer number of warmly-dressed well-wishers, friends and Free Nazanin campaigners who crowd the pavement in solidarity with the Hampstead dad, who’s barely moved from the spot since he began a hunger strike in late October.
The site of Richard Ratcliffe's protest on the afternoon of Day 19
Richard’s quiet dignity has staggered all those who know him – and know of him – for the last five and a half years. If your average London cab driver or member of the executive knows one thing about Iran, it’s the name Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. There are at least four British citizens arbitrarily detained in Iranian prisons, all for reasons that are grossly unfair and outside of their control. This particular family has become, rightly or wrongly, willingly or not, an emblem of fortitude in the face of unspeakable cruelty – and a thorn in the side of both parties across the road at King Charles Street. And half an hour ago, Richard was invited inside to talk.
The family's plight on the front page of London's Evening Standard newspaper on Thursday
Inside is the other London. The bloodless one, where swollen black-painted SUVs with tinted windows convey the representatives of impossibly cruel regimes into the corridors of queasy, hand-me-down power. Where the discussions that matter don’t ever happen in public, no matter what else the host claims to be.
Ali Bagheri Kani is here as a representative of Ebrahim Raisi’s cabinet, and as such, as Ayatollah Khamenei’s idea of Iran. The visit is part of a European concessions-seeking tour before the next round of nuclear talks in Vienna. The fate of a nation, potentially the world, is at stake. Despite the gravity of the situation, Bagheri Kani is also acutely unhappy about the UK hosting the Aban Tribunal, telling Foreign Office minister James Cleverley with no small measure of opacity that he will suspend “part” of the talks if the truth-seeking commission organized by “terrorists” isn’t called off.
No small wonder.
In a recent article, Rights Realization Centre chairman Drewery Dyke, who just yesterday read out the names of 133 officials implicated in November 2019 atrocities at Church House, asked why the UK is vacillating over taking the Islamic Republic to task over human rights violations. “The world has reached an international justice point-of-no-return,” Dyke writes. “If the UK wishes to join the club – as the Foreign Secretary said it does – to ‘advance the cause of freedom’, the FCDO needs ‘to rise to meet this moment’.”
This could have been the moment, in the low-probability universe. Now, Richard Ratcliffe is walking slowly but steadily back toward the clicking shutters. On his 19th day of hunger strike, he speaks so quietly only those closest can hear: “If I’m honest, quite a depressing meeting. I had hoped there would have been some kind of a breakthrough… that may be happening away from us, but I don’t have any hopes."
Richard Ratcliffe speaks to the media after another inconclusive meeting with Foreign Office ministers
At the end of the same road, the subjects of Bagheri Kani's ire are assembling. Hearings at Church House have ended for the day and a small protest is being held opposite Downing Street, the official residence of the UK Prime Minister. The Aban Tribunal was co-organised by several Iranian NGOs and human rights campaigns in exile, who issued calls for witnesses and painstakingly helped collect testimonies for the co-counsel over the past 12 months. They’re here in force, as are a group of Iranian workers’ rights activists, and individuals wanting to show support.
Iranians opposed to the Islamic Republic gather in Whitehall
There’s also activist Reza Rashidi: the softly-spoken founder of an NGO and school for vulnerable street children in Tehran, who was held as a political prisoner in his country of birth for seven years. “I thought it was important to come for the kids,” he says of the tribunal. “They don’t have their own voice or media representatives, and can’t go anywhere to say what happens in Iran or why.”
Children's rights activist Reza Rashidi attends the protest opposite Downing Street
Shiva Mahbobi, political activist and spokeswoman for the Campaign to Free Political Prisoners in Iran, is buoyed by the proceedings so far. “From the beginning we gave the tribunal our support. We reached out to our network in Iran, and we’ve been sending letters to different governments and the [UN], sending documents and translating videos.
Shiva Mahbobi of the Campaign to Free Political Prisoners in Iran carries posters denouncing Ebrahim Raisi
“These two days, especially yesterday, were very intense. But families must have the right to know what happened. It’s inspiring to see police officers coming with evidence. It shows how broken they are and how humanity can reach everyone’s heart.” The next step is for the United Nations to launch a fact-finding commission with more legal weight.
Justice for Iran co-director Shadi Amin says hundreds of people have been watching the live stream from Church House in English alone, to say nothing of the Persian channel. “We had a lot of responses from families in Iran last night. I’m happy that people in Iran know they aren’t alone.”
Shadi Amin, second left, and activists demonstrate after the second hearing of the Aban Tribunal
Both UK residents, Mahbobi and Amin are united in disquiet – if not surprise – at the British government’s inertia on human rights abuses in Iran. “We see what’s going on with Richard’s situation,” Amin says. “The government isn’t going to change its policy. They’re over there hosting the deputy foreign minister. It’s important that we continue our work and let them know they are responsible.”
Protesters from different organizations stand together in central London
Activists hold up a banner displaying the faces of young Iranians killed at the hands of the Iranian state
Banners are held aloft bearing the faces of the murdered and the unaccounted-for, the cases older or newer, and too many of the faces are young. Slogans are shouted into the biting wind blowing down Whitehall, calling for the end of the Islamic regime, for women’s rights, workers’ rights, the release of prisoners of conscience, an end to Khamenei and Raisi, an end to impunity. "We're here to say Khamenei is a fascist dictator," says activist Alireza Rashidi. "He killed so many people."
Alireza Rashidi holds a poster at the rally. Text reads: "We want justice... For the sixties, Aban 98 [November 2019], today, tomorrow... We won't forgive, we won't forget"
Before nightfall (4.17pm), supporters of the Aban Tribunal will have gone to King Charles Street to greet Richard Ratcliffe and campaigners for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s freedom. As things die down, a Chinese student in London on a media studies course, who has been hovering nearby, wants to know if the same protest will be back tomorrow: possible fodder for a documentary project. He pronounces this tiny, peaceful show of defiance “amazing”.
“In my country, we can’t do things like this.”