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Why isn’t the British Government Doing More to Free its Jailed Citizens in Iran?

July 18, 2017
Natasha Schmidt
7 min read
Gabriella Ratcliffe calling for her mother's release on the one-year anniversary of her arrest
Gabriella Ratcliffe calling for her mother's release on the one-year anniversary of her arrest
Grandfather Kamal Foroughi has spent six years in jail
Grandfather Kamal Foroughi has spent six years in jail
The Zaghari-Ratcliffe Family
The Zaghari-Ratcliffe Family

The UK government must do more to secure British hostages held in Iranian prisons, says the husband of jailed Londoner Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been held in an Iranian jail for over 15 months.

“They don’t publicly defend her and they should,” Richard Ratcliffe told IranWire.

Tulip Siddiqi, the MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, secured a debate on British citizens in Iranian jails in parliament on July 18. The debate also focused on Kamal Foroughi, a 77-year-old British-Iranian who has been held on espionage charges at Evin Prison for over six years. Between 50 and 60 MPs attended the debate, and Richard Ratcliffe said many of them reported that they had received over 100 emails from their constituents about the cases. 

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe told her husband she and her fellow cellmates in the women’s political ward would hold a shared prayer vigil in their ward to mark the time of the debate. Nazanin also wanted the following message to be sent out as the debate was commencing:

“I would like to thank all those who are supporting us: people across the world, politicians, and those praying for us.

“I know in my heart that you can feel the pain of a mother kept away from her 22 month old baby for over 15 months. The pain I have gone through is hard to express.

I might have been able to endure the fear and loneliness of nearly nine months in solitary confinement and the pressure and stress of general wards in different prisons in Iran which have made me suffer from severe depression.

But as a mother I will not stand the pain my daughter, Gabriella, has gone through, is still going through.

My daughter is no longer able to communicate with her father, and it won’t be long for her to forget him. She hasn’t been able to build a relationship with her mother, as the weekly one-hour visits within the tension and stress of prison makes it impossible for her to do so. We have been deprived from experiencing a mother-daughter relationship in the past 16 months. It is hard to explain the image when Gabriella clings to me and we must say goodbye. It rips anybody’s heart.

I do not intend to go through all the details of the inhumane behaviour I have gone through. But I insist to speak up for my little daughter’s rights of being with her parents. Her little shoulders cannot endure this pain any longer. An international act needs to be done to end this injustice."

Dual Nationals and the "Sham" of the Ambassadors' Visit

Richard Ratcliffe says Nazanin is being held hostage as “leverage” in Iran’s dealings with the international community. But it’s not just Nazanin who is being used, he says. It’s part of a “wider phenomenon of taking dual nationals as hostages.”

On July 16, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, the deputy head of Iran’s judiciary, announced that Chinese-American graduate student Xiyue Wang had been sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment on espionage charges. Ejei said Wang was a “US tool of infiltration who holds double nationality and was controlled directly by Americans” and part of a wider “infiltration project,” a conspiracy that some conservatives in Iran believe includes Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Wang's friends and colleagues deny the accusations, saying is a committed academic with a love for Iran. 

On July 5, 45 foreign ambassadors were invited to tour Evin Prison. But they were only taken to a particular area of the prison. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe told her husband as she was leaving one of the prison’s medical facilities she saw the diplomats being taken to “ the new ward for rich people." She added: "As there were lots of dual citizens there, they had taken nearly 20 of them to solitary for the whole day."  IranWire spoke to inmates who described the visit as “staged,” “phony” and a “sham.”

The organization Redress, which campaigns against torture, has also seen an “emerging pattern” when it comes to the UK government’s approach to jailed dual nationals, and has appealed to politicians to stop taking a “half-hearted approach” when it comes to these prisoners. The organization put the cases of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which then called for the prisoners’  immediate release, and said the continued detention of both was in violation of international law.


Nazanin Not Forgotten

Richard Ratcliffe says it’s essential that the Free Nazanin Campaign, the media and ordinary people keep raising Nazanin’s profile. “We have to let her know she’s not forgotten,” he said, and urged people who hadn’t done already to sign the petition for her release. “We’re hoping for a million signatures. It’s important. Nazanin watches it, her family watch it,” he said. So far, nearly a million people have signed.

There have been increased worries for Nazanin’s mental and physical health. She suffers from anxiety, nausea, and extreme pain in her neck and shoulder, which turned out to be a displaced disc, probably due to poor prison conditions. She has suffered both hair and weight loss while in prison.

But her husband and family are particularly worried about her persistent feelings of desolation and that her ordeal will never be over. Her message today shows her as a strong mother, angry at what her daughter is having to endure. But conversations with her husband have been more worrying, showing her feelings of isolation:  “Last time we spoke, I told you that I was feeling better, but really I wasn’t," she told her husband recently. "Afterwards I couldn’t stop weeping. I was sobbing so loudly. I haven’t cried like that for a long time, loud and long. I never thought one could cry for so long.”

She has asked to see a female psychiatrist from outside the prison, because she and her fellow inmates do not trust the one who works at the prison, who she says has been trying to persuade her to take pills for her anxiety. He threatened that if she didn’t agree to take them, he would have to send her to an asylum.


“Iran is volatile, Britain is volatile.” So why can’t they work together?

Richard Ratcliffe is angry and frustrated by the UK’s inability to speak out. “They can’t hide behind this idea that the situation is delicate or sensitive with Iran,” he said. At the same time, he believes the people holding his wife — her interrogators, prison guards, those who arrested her, and Iran’s judiciary — are aware of just how absurd the situation is, and that her continued incarceration can only harm any agenda they have. “Not one of Nazanin’s interrogators doubt that using a mother and child as leverage is wrong.”, he told IranWire. He says those in the Iranian government wanting to push for better international relations must know they are going about it the wrong way. “It’s about mutual respect and building better relations, about common understanding.” Both the UK and Iran are both in a “volatile place” he says, so it’s no use behaving as we’re on the “precipice of war.”

Despite this, Richard Ratcliffe says, “People can make a difference. This debate today has come about because people wrote to their MPs.”

UN Special Rapporteurs have also called for the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Foroughi, referring to their trials as “a mockery of justice”. The European Union has also asked for Kamal Foroughi’s release.

In March 2017, 261 MPs and Peers signed a letter seeking the release of Nazanin, Kamal and a third British nationals, Roya Nobakht. In April 2017, 49 MEPs signed a letter appealing to Iran’s Head of Judiciary. But more needs to be done.

“The UK Government’s current approach is not working,” Redress says. And MP Tulip Siddiqi agrees: “British citizens imprisoned abroad deserve their human rights to be upheld,” said Siddiqi in a press release. “My constituent, Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, has been detained unlawfully for over one year, and this debate is my latest attempt to raise her plight in parliament and to demand that the government acts to ensure her safe return.”



Leon Nitram
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