They come from different countries and have very different lives. One is Chinese, another is Lebanese and the other British. But one thing has brought them together: they are announcing the formation of a new group to talk on the sidelines of the 74th United Nations General Assembly. The name of the group says it all: The Families Alliance against State Hostage Taking.
The families all have relatives currently in jail in Iran, or who have previously been in this dreadful situation.
While the use of the term “hostage” for people who’ve been tried and convicted by the Iranian judiciary might seem novel, Iran openly admits to its hostage-taking practice. Take the case of Xiyue Wang, an American citizen of Chinese origin and a Ph.D. student of history at Princeton University who has been in an Iranian prison for almost four years. Speaking on the US’s National Public Radio, Tehran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif openly offered to exchange him with an Iranian professor held in the US. The exchange offer has been even more crude in the case of Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has spent a similar amount of time in jail. Iran has openly offered to release her if the British government agrees to settle an old debt. Former UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said she was being held for “diplomatic leverage,” more or less admitting to her hostage status.
The new group was launched at a press conference in a crowded WeWork room not far from UN headquarters on the afternoon of Tuesday, September 24. Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin’s husband, explained that initially there had been some “reluctance” to use the term “hostage-taking” and that his family had only taken to using it last year. According to the families, the term makes clear that their loved ones had been imprisoned without due process, or anything even resembling it.
Using the term had “felt really brave,” Ratcliffe added, since it is usually used for actions of “a criminal gang, not a nation state.”
“In my view this is state-led hostage-taking,” Ratcliffe said, adding that “a new practice of hostage diplomacy” was in use. “The world needs to take notice,” he said. “The world is not doing a good enough job at the moment.”
Most western governments are so far reluctant to use the “hostage” terminology. The Canadian government, which traditionally introduces the annual general assembly resolution on the situation of human rights in Iran, had distanced itself from hosting the launch, a source told IranWire.
“They used to tell us, don’t call them hostages, it’ll make them mad,” said Ali Rezaian, whose brother Jason was held for 18 months in an Iranian prison before being released as part of a prisoner exchange that followed the signing of the historic nuclear deal in July 2015. “But we need to eliminate this idea that there is any sort of justification to the arrests.”
Jason Rezaian, a reporter with the Washington Post, attended the launch event not as a speaker but as a journalist doing his job — a reminder that there can be an end to the nightmare of captivity.
The event also featured a speaker that gave many people hope too: Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese businessman who was released in June 2019 after almost four years in an Iranian prison.
“Seeing Nizar here gives us hope,” said Babak Namazi, whose brother and father, Siamak and Baquer, have been held in Iranian prisons since 2015 and 2016 respectively. “It is beyond description how these four years have been for all of us,” Babak Namazi said. He said even today, the family does not fully understand why it was targeted.
Zakka said the "vicious circle of hostage-taking” needed to stop and that only different governments working together could achieve this. His own release was secured after intervention from Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, who is considered an ally of Tehran in the complex geopolitical web of the region.
Hua Qu, the wife of Xiyue Wang and a founding member of the Families Alliance, expressed hope that her native China will also help secure her husband’s release. Xiyue was born in China but later acquired US citizenship, which annuls his Chinese citizenship. Hua also said she expected the US government to work harder to achieve Xiyue’s release.
Pointing to personal interventions from President Donald Trump that had secured release of a detained pastor in Turkey and a prominent singer in Sweden, Hua said that “America First” should mean that every American comes first — and not just celebrities.
The founding members of the alliance all stressed the need for governments to work together. “This is not an American problem; it’s not a British problem,” Ratcliffe said. “It is becoming an international problem.”
Writing to Rouhani
Outside the work of the alliance, Ratcliffe, Namazi and Sarah Moriarty, the daughter of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing while on a trip to Iran in March 2007, wrote a letter to President Hassan Rouhani, who is due to speak at the General Assembly on Wednesday, September 25. They requested to meet him but did not receive a response.
On Tuesday, Babak Namazi and Richard Ratcliffe went to Iran’s permanent mission to the UN, located in a Third Avenue building in midtown Manhattan, requesting to meet Rouhani, Zarif or another Iranian official. They were shown the door.
In the letter, a copy of which IranWire has seen, the families quote from the Koran and its reference to a “compassionate and merciful God” and ask the Iranian president to help secure the release of detainees “inspired by Islamic values” and by his own experience being a father and a son.
The alliance is “about solidarity, about telling families that you are not alone,” Ratcliffe said, a sentiment that was echoed by the participants in the press conference.
Seeing that the world supports you is very important for the hostages, Nizar Zakka stressed. The “keep it quiet” approach of some families really “kills the person inside,” he added.
As the press conference came to an end, the family members chatted with members of the press and gave additional interviews, imploring the media not to let the issue disappear from the public’s sight.
In addition to those speaking at the event, the alliance includes families of other former and current hostages, including Toronto’s Maryam Malekpour, whose brother, Saeed, was recently able to flee Evin prison, where he was serving a life sentence; Vida Mehran Nia, the wife of the Iranian scientist and Swedish resident Ahmad Reza Jalali, who faces the death penalty, legal experts Jared Genser and Jason Poblete and Ali Arab, an environmental activist who worked to secure Nizar Zakka's freedom.