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Nazanin Fears Isolation as New Trial Approaches

September 10, 2020
Natasha Schmidt
7 min read
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was originally charged with espionage, and later with "propaganda against the regime"
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was originally charged with espionage, and later with "propaganda against the regime"
Since March, Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been at her parents' house, but is unable to move more than 300 meters from the property
Since March, Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been at her parents' house, but is unable to move more than 300 meters from the property

When Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was summoned by Revolutionary Guards agents on September 8, she wasn't afraid of being put back on a ward with prisoners. What she feared was being alone again. 

“There is a real issue with her current isolation,” her husband Richard Ratcliffe says. “Nazanin wasn’t worried about going back to the general cells on Tuesday, and being back with friends. She was terrified about being put back in solitary. That was what was triggered by being sat next to all those guards.” 

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was told she faced a fresh set of charges, though in reality authorities have simply revived an old case of “propaganda against the regime.” 

It’s this fear of being alone that the Iranian authorities have become so adept at exploiting over the last four and a half years. In April 2016, they stopped her at Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran, they separated her from others and began their campaign of cutting her off from her family and her life. She was kept in solitary confinement for eight and a half months. 

It’s one of the most important points Richard Ratcliffe and the Free Nazanin campaign are demanding the British government take action on. “Seclusion of the victim is a key principle of hostage-taking,” Richard says. As soon as he heard what Nazanin had experienced on September 8, he contacted British officials and demanded they do everything they could to ensure they were at the trial, which they are entitled to since the UK government granted Nazanin diplomatic protection in 2019. “That is why Iran’s denial of consular assistance matters so much. It is not just that observing help ensures that it is a fair trial. The risk is it is a complete placebo, some five-minute event used to justify holding onto Nazanin for a couple more years.The Foreign Office should be ready to call it out as bullshit they have seen with their own eyes.”

When the UK granted her diplomatic protection, it changed the nature of the crimes Iran had committed against Zaghari-Ratcliffe, so that any violation against her was essentially as a violation against the UK. Given the recent reinstatement of charges, the UK must demonstrate that it is serious, says Ratcliffe, and demand that a Foreign Office representative is present at the trial. “We made the request through our line team in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). They said the embassy has officially asked the [Iranian] Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is awaiting a response. I told the FCO that I don’t want them to just request, but to assert their right to consular assistance. And for me this issue is binary: they are either at the trial or they are not. They should not accept the MFA just not getting back to them or giving some nonsense about not recognizing dual nationality. Nazanin has diplomatic protection. It is a very significant step if they don’t allow access.  

And if it doesn’t happen, we will need to discuss with the Foreign Office what they do next.”


Clashes on Social Media

The announcement that Nazanin was facing reinstated charges — most likely of “spreading propaganda against the regime” — came after hostile comments from one of Iran’s own propaganda outfits: the English-language Press TV, and specifically by the Press TV Programs Twitter account. On September 7, Press TV Programs responded to accusations that Iran was stepping up its tactic of taking peopleNo! the tweet read. "You are brainwashed for believing the British regime narrative that this can be reduced to “hostage diplomacy” and other such nonsense. Iran is a sovereign state and it has a right to deal harshly with people who breach our security.”

“I suspect at some level it was not strategic, but hot-headed,” says Ratcliffe. "We left it for the first day, and I was surprised the attacks were continuing the following day, which is why I tagged the ambassador in our response. I wanted him to see and to take responsibility. I hadn’t expected him to block us instantly. I guess the simple answer is that he didn’t want to see or take responsibility for what Press TV Programs were up to. It seems like there probably has been a preemptive steer to discredit us, and muddy the link to the debt (while still keeping the pressure on for it to be paid), and we expect for things to now get bumpy. But perhaps the briefing lines against us are not quite clear, and the strategy not quite agreed between different Iranian stakeholders. I think the social media against us and on Nazanin might become clearer as the second case moves to conviction.”

The debt Ratcliffe refers to relates to a canceled arms deal between Iran and the UK from the 1970s. The failure of Iranian officials to line up their messaging in any consistent way is routine. The recent hostile Twitter exchange makes Iranian officials look incompetent, but it has a very real impact. Throughout Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s time held in Iran, her lawyer has repeatedly been blocked from accessing authorities and receiving regular updates on her case. “He goes down each week,” Richard Ratcliffe says. "Sometimes they will see him, sometimes not. It feels like they have long been in a holding pattern — though that has obviously changed with this new case. I think we need to start calling out the illegality of the whole charade.”


Raw Emotions 

Anyone who has followed the #FreeNazanin campaign will be familiar with the energy, drive, creativity and passion of those working so hard to free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, make sure her story remained in people's hearts and minds, and to keep her spirits high. Richard recalls the comedy event the campaign organized in 2018, using the hashtag #chooselaughter. “I remember it was very uplifting and moving,” he says. The campaign has organized Christmas carol singing outside Downing Street in London, and UK-based events for the Iranian new year and Easter, all raising awareness of her case and calling for action from the UK and Iranian governments. There are joint events with the families of other people held in Iran. There are theater and music, and Richard says Nazanin has told him about prisoners’ sharing jokes to keep their resilience up. “There are certainly lots of gallows humor in Evin. But right now I don’t think either of us is feeling very playful. It is still too raw, and there is too much to keep watching and be ready to respond to.”

The family, friends and supporters have also been very open about what years of being held hostage have done to her. When she was released from solitary confinement in late 2016 it was after she expressed having suicidal thoughts. She has been on hunger strike. The announcement of the revived case has left them feeling vulnerable and scared. “She wouldn’t speak to anyone yesterday apart from [her daughter] Gabriella, didn’t have the energy to respond to anyone’s messages,” Richard Ratcliffe told IranWire in an email. “And today she is feeling the fact that I have been busy with campaigning. Private time is stretched precisely when you need it the most. I am probably still more in campaign mode, responding to media, discussing with the government  — so won’t really feel where we are until next week. She is definitely feeling empty at the moment. And feeling that her husband is still in campaign mode.

“My fear of course with the second case is that it will be used as a replacement to justify keeping her. Nazanin’s entitlement to clemency on the first case will finally come through once they have convicted her on the second. Iranian law is just used to provide a fig leaf for her detention.”

Richard and Nazanin’s daughter, Gabriella, who is now six, also struggles. “She often misses her mum and grandmother, and talks about wanting to go back to visit Iran, particularly during the lockdown, but less now school has started.”

When Gabriella flew home to start school last October, Richard Ratcliffe described her as “so brave.” Since that return, he says, she claims not to remember how to speak Persian. “It is like she has switched to settle in,” he says. "Which is tough for her grandparents.

“But she will cry for Nazanin at night still about one night in three. Particularly when there is stuff going on in Iran. She picks up on the mood, even if not on the details of the legal chess game. We did not explain to her exactly what happened on Tuesday, just that Mummy had had a bad day, and Daddy was going to tell the television.”


Related Coverage: 

Nazanin to Face New Trial

Nazanin's Husband: Hostage-Taking by Iran Must End

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