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Society & Culture

Britain Must Help Free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

August 22, 2016
Natasha Schmidt
6 min read
Britain Must Help Free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe
Britain Must Help Free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe
Judge Salavati ruled in Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's case
Judge Salavati ruled in Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's case

Iran is holding Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe hostage and the allegations against her are “totally absurd,” Geoffrey Robertson QC has said — but Britain could do more to help secure her freedom. 

On August 14, Revolutionary Court judge Abolghasem Salavati ruled on Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case in a secret trial lasting three hours. But more than a week on, her family has still not been informed of the charges against her, and they were not allowed to attend the trial. 

Iran has been given until today, August 22, to respond to the petition filed by Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin’s husband, at the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Geoffrey Robertson QC, legal counsel for Thomson Reuters Foundation, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s employer, said the world will be watching as Iran rules on her case. “Nazanin was held for four months, for some of that time in solitary confinement, before even being brought before a judge. So much for habeus corpus! The judge she was brought before eventually, and who is now in charge of her case – Judge Salavati – has a bad reputation. But the eyes of the world will upon him in this case, and his handling of it will be subject to intense scrutiny.”

Revolutionary Guards arrested Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe as she was leaving Iran after visiting family.  “It is impossible to say why she was arrested,” says Robertson. “It may simply be paranoia – the fact that she works for a media organization. More likely, it is because she is a dual national – born in Iran but married to a Briton and living in England. Her arrest demonstrates the dangers facing all Iranian dual nationals, because several others in that category have also been arrested. They should be warned that they are at risk if they go back to visit relatives. They can be held, like Nazanin, and used as bargaining chips in Iran’s dealings with the West.”

Authorities confiscated the passport of her daughter, Gabriella, aged two, who was with her at the time of her arrest. Gabriella is currently staying with Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s parents in Tehran. 

On August 16, news emerged that a fifth Iranian-British citizen had been arrested. He or she has not yet been named, but the detained individual was alleged to have links with British intelligence. 

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case seems to be entirely in the hands of the Revolutionary Guards, which operates separately from the Iranian government — and is largely unreceptive to gestures of international engagement. “The Revolutionary Guards are a power in Iran, but ultimate legal responsibility for their actions rests with the state of Iran and its supreme leader,” says Geoffrey Robertson. “They must ensure, at least, that anyone arrested by a policing force is brought quickly before a fair and independent judge with power to order release – the right we call habeus corpus.”

On July 19, Robertson, of Doughty Street Chambers, and Penny Madden of Gibson, Dunn & Crucher LLP, who also provide legal counsel on the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case, wrote to the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, appealing him to intervene on her case. “The plight of Nazanin is of utmost urgency and cannot continue to be ignored,” the letter states. “She has been subjected to the harshest injustice, and it is critical that she now receives the full immediate support and attention from the highest levels of government.”

The British Government Must Take Action

But, says Robertson, UK’s level of intervention has been disappointing. “The new UK Government has been incredibly supine. Although David Cameron raised her case with Iran when he was prime minister, Theresa May and Boris Johnson did and said nothing until their indifference was a subject of critical comment in The Times. A few days later Downing Street said that Mrs May had finally raised the matter with her Iranian counterpart, although it gave no indication that there had been any response. At very least one would expect the foreign secretary to have called in the Iranian ambassador and demanded consular access to Nazanin, and to have insisted on the return of her child’s British passport and a safe conduct for her husband to travel to Iran and visit her in prison. In my view, he has abjectly abandoned his duty in this case to assist British citizens subjected to outrageous violations of their human rights.”

Hossein Rassam, a former legal analyst for the British Embassy in Tehran, says that the British government can only intervene in a limited capacity on criminal cases brought against British or Iranian-British citizens in Iran. However, citing a guide for British nationals abroad produced by the embassy, Rassam says it will intervene if it considers the person in question to be “particularly vulnerable”.

Kaveh Mousavi, an Iranian lawyer based in the UK who defended British prisoners held in Guantanamo, agrees, adding that the government would avoid intervention in the interests of continuing strong diplomatic relations. Mousavi says that when diplomatic solutions do not work, the family of a dual national detained in Iran must decide if it wants to go to the media. “In some cases, we have seen that the government has not done much,” says Mousavi. “In other cases, such as the cases of Guantanamo’s prisoners, due to the pressure of the public, the government really put its effort into pressurizing the US to return these prisoners to the UK. It should be noted that some of these prisoners who were returned to the UK – like Shaker Aamer — were not even UK citizens, they were only UK residents.”

Looking at previous cases of dual nationals being jailed in Iran might offer some insight, but these cases do not necessarily provide a blueprint for what might happen next. “Every case is different and it is hard to predict,” says Geoffrey Robertson. “We have seen the recent release of several American prisoners, evidently in return for financial concessions by the US. This regime is brutal, but it is not stupid, and rational self-interest, to avoid re-imposition of sanctions or further diplomatic damage, may incline it to do the right thing.”

Mousavi says that, as part of its obligations as a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights,  it must maintain the rights of its citizens — including the right to life and the right to freedom. But the government can only implement this mandate in the regions under the scope of its control and supervision — and Iranian prisons do not fall under this scope. However, says Mousavi, even where it cannot have any judicial review, the government is obliged to maintain the rights of its citizens. 

“Iran has not signed up to international human rights conventions, which would allow her case to be brought before a UN tribunal with any power to make binding decisions,” says Geoffrey Robertson. “Her case has been brought before the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which will deliver a judgment in due course. But Iran will not be bound to honor it, and will not be inclined to honor it without international pressure. However, as a basis for the exertion of such pressure, we can expose and expound the illegalities in Iran’s treatment of Nazanin – denying her access to British consular officials is an obvious breach of international law. So is seizing the British passport of her baby, Gabriella, and holding her effectively as a hostage.” 


Additional reporting from Nargess Tavassolian


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