Thursday, November 4 marked the 12th day of a renewed hunger strike by Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been held hostage by Tehran since 2016. For almost two weeks now Mr. Ratcliffe has protested outside the Foreign Office in London against his wife’s continued detention, calling on the UK authorities to take action.
Nazanin, a former employee of the Thompson Reuters Foundation, was detained at Tehran Airport in April 2016 together with the couple’s young daughter, while on her way home from visiting family. Her original five-year jail sentence on baseless espionage charges came to an end in April this year. But she was then hit with a fresh charge of “propaganda against the regime” and sentenced to another year in prison. The sentence was upheld on appeal less than a month ago.
In a series of messages to IranWire, Mr. Ratcliffe wrote: “We decided to go on hunger strike after Nazanin's lawyer informed us that he was going to appeal her new sentence, which was issued without a court hearing and her words being heard. Their next call was a summons to return her to prison. I discussed this with the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss; she told me how angry she was and that she would talk to the Iranian minister."
He went on: "I should have realized from the vague talk in the summer about a deal with Iran for the release of Nazanin and other hostages how fragile the hope was. But again, the inappropriate response of the British government to Nazanin's new sentence shocked me. Then it was replaced by anger, then sadness. That's when I decided to take action myself."
The UK government is still refusing to use the word “hostage” to describe Nazanin’s situation. Iranian officials have intimated she is being held over a historic £400 million debt Britain owes to Iran for tanks that were ordered, but never delivered, prior to the Islamic Revolution. Now, Mr. Ratcliffe also believes Nazanin’s fate is tied to that of the JCPOA negotiations.
He last went on hunger strike two years ago, for 15 days, in front of the Iranian embassy. “I never thought I’d have to do the same against the British government,” he wrote. “Of course, Iran is still Nazanin's main aggressor. But the British government has also disappointed us.”
He added: “I’m really grateful to everyone who follows and shares our story inside Iran. The only thing all political prisoners in Iran need is to not suffer in silence. The way the Iranian government abuses its citizens is not normal. The important thing is that the world sees it. One day the Iranian government will pay. We will see that day."
Anousheh Ashouri’s Son: Every Day is a Torment
In recent days Mr. Ratcliffe has been joined outside the Foreign Office by family members of Anousheh Ashouri, another British-Iranian dual national who has been detained in Iran since summer 2017. His son Aryan Ashouri visited King Charles Street on Wednesday, November 3 to show solidarity with the strike, and told IranWire the two families shared a common pain.
"While Richard is on a hunger strike in front of the Foreign Office,” he said, “one person is staying with him each night. Although the space he’s sitting in is safe, we’ve arranged for someone to be with him every night to keep an eye on his health, which has now totally deteriorated, and so he’s not left alone and has someone by his side.”
Arian and his sister, Elika, have been campaigning for the release of their father for more than four years. Anousheh, a retired businessman, was abducted off the streets of Tehran while in the country caring for his elderly mother, who was having surgery. Now 67 years old, he has been sentenced to 12 years in prison on fabricated charges of "spying for Israel". His children say he, too, is being held hostage.
Throughout Anousheh’s incarceration, his family have only been allowed to speak to him indirectly on the phone. "There’s always a 90-year-old telephone operator between us and my father," Aryan said. "When my father calls from prison, he has to call my grandmother's house in Iran, then my grandmother puts him on loudspeaker, and then she calls us on WhatsApp, and puts us on loudspeaker too.”
Even these calls, he added, were only permitted after Anousheh promised Evin Prison authorities he would stop sending voice messages to the world outside: “My father was harassed for a while. The situation is a little better now.”
Of his father’s health, Aryan Ashouri told IranWire: “My father does what he can to be physically healthy; he exercises and pays attention to nutrition. But some issues like overall sanitation in the prison, and the presence of beetles and mice in the halls, as well as overcrowding, make things more difficult. A few months ago everyone was finally vaccinated, but before that in March, my father became very ill with what we’re almost certain was Covid-19. The symptoms were very severe.”
Aryan Ashouri said his family had little hope of Anousheh being released without the British government taking action to pay the £400m it owes to Iran. “We’re trying to persuade the government to do this, or at least, if there’s a prisoner exchange between Iran and the UK, to ensure our father and Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe are among them.”
In 2019 the government granted Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe diplomatic protection: a rarely-used instrument that had previously not been conferred on a British citizen for 100 years. It allows a country to challenge another state over the treatment of one of its nationals or companies. "If the British government granted diplomatic protection to my father too, his would become a government issue and we’d have more faith,” Aryan said. “Of course, it’s not easy, but we still hope.
"My mother and I miss him very much. There are always everyday things that put a little bit of stress on us. But more than any of those, his absence and his incarceration are a torment for us, every hour and every moment.”