FOR a decade, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a 41-year-old British-Iranian woman, had a normal life in north London. She had a home, a job, husband and a beautiful daughter named Gabriella. A 2016 visit to Iran changed all that. Nazanin, who had worked as a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested and taken away at a Tehran airport by the members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, an elite faction of the government. After a family visit, she was about to return to the United Kingdom from Iran with her 21-month-old daughter.
Since April 3, 2016, Nazanin has been languishing in one of Iran’s most notorious Evin prison in Tehran. She was accused of allegedly ‘plotting to topple the Iranian government’ and ‘spying’. Later the Revolutionary Guards toned down the charges to ‘soft overthrow’ of the Islamic republic. Nazanin has vehemently denied the charges and has maintained that she was on a holiday. The agency where Nazanin had worked is a charity organisation which operates independently of Thomson Reuters and Reuters News. Both the agency and Reuters have denied any involvement in any kind of plot as Nazanin’s reason for a visit to her native Iran.
There was a speedy trial and Nazanin was tried as an Iranian citizen as Iran does not recognise dual citizenship. After the trial, she was found guilty of plotting to overthrow the regime. Nazanin was sentenced to five years in prison. Gabriella was sent to her maternal grandparents. Her husband Richard Ratcliffe remains in London, unable to get any permission to go and visit her in jail or bring his daughter back home.
In 2017, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case got a lot of attention and became controversial because of then British foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s erroneous comments. He said, ‘Nazanin went to Iran to teach young people journalism.’ Iranian state television immediately interpreted Johnson’s comments as an ‘unintended confession.’ Later, he acknowledged his mistake but that statement bolstered the Iranians to go after Nazanin with vengeance. Many believed that Johnson’s remarks had risked lengthening Nazanin’s prison term as it implied that she was there to influence the Iranians against the Islamic establishment. The incorrect comments aggravated the precarious situation more and were used by the Iranian officials as evidence.
The Iranians gave no explanation as to how Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was involved in trying to ‘topple the government.’ Her work with the Reuters Foundation did not involve any plan to overthrow a foreign government nor did she work as a journalist. She and her family have always claimed that the visit was to introduce her daughter to her family in Iran.
Common sense tells me that if there was any sinister plan, would Nazanin have taken her daughter along? For a covert operation, would she have used her parents as a front cover? Or would she have endangered her parent’s safety in case anything went wrong? Another obvious question: by holding Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe as a pawn, did Iran want something from the British government in exchange for her? There were a lot of speculations that were floating on the media as to why a mock trial was held. One was the 1976 botched arms deal where Iran bought hundreds of Chieftain Tanks from the United Kingdom, but never received them. It was rumoured that Iran wanted the past payment back in negotiating Nazanin’s release as Britain was considering ending the decade-old dispute. It turned out not to be true as the UK debt to Iran is a separate issue. It was just an opportunity to settle the old dispute since economic sanctions were lifted in 2015 as part of the nuclear deal.
In the last three years, a lot of drama has unfolded to get Nazanin out of prison. Initially, she went on a hunger strike about the alleged refusal to give her proper medical care as she was having panic attacks. Since her imprisonment, her husband has been constantly campaigning to get her free. In late 2017, he met the foreign secretary Boris Johnson before Johnson’s visit to Iran. Several things related to Nazanin’s case were discussed, including granting her diplomatic protection and to elevate her case from consular issue to ‘state matter.’ None of that materialised as Iran refused to allow such a proposal since it was treating Nazanin only as an Iranian citizen. Iran’s judiciary acts as an independent entity and put a limit to what the moderate government of Hassan Rouhani could discuss about the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case.
After Jeremy Hunt had taken over the foreign office from Boris Johnson, he got personally involved to put pressure on Tehran to get Nazanin released. He put her under diplomatic protection but without any effect. During a visit to Tehran, he lobbied Iranian ministers with the hope that they can influence the judiciary’s decision concerning Nazanin on compassionate grounds. Bearing gifts for Gabriella from his own four-year-old daughter, Hunt went to meet Nazanin’s family. He assured them that he was doing all that he could to secure her freedom. All his efforts had failed and he was not able to make headway. Ultimately, he returned to London with one of the matching dolls that Nazanin had made for her daughter and for Hunt’s. Gabriella gave him a drawing of a happy family of three. In January of 2019, Hunt heard from Nazanin’s husband that she was asked by two members of the Revolutionary Guards to ‘spy on Britain’s Department for International Development’ to secure her freedom. The revelation prompted Hunt to summon Iran’s ambassador.
To draw more attention to Nazanin’s plight in jail, this past June, in a coordinated plan, her husband started a joint hunger strike on the pavement outside the Iranian embassy in London. ‘We do not approve such measures…. They are against international conventions,’ Iran’s former reformist prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi said in a statement at the time. ‘If someone has a request, we advise them to follow it through legal channels and let the Iranian embassy do its work.’ A day before, Iran’s state media cited a similar statement given by deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi as saying, ‘Iran’s judiciary will not be influenced by such blackmail and those who are sentenced for spying should finish their sentences.’
In July, things between the United Kingdom and Iran took a turn for the worse. Tension escalated after British military had seized an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar suspecting it was heading to Syria. Iran saw it as some sort of piracy and accused Britain of working in the interest of Washington. In retaliation, according to the British defence ministry, three Iranian vessels tried to stop a British oil tanker passing through the Strait of Hormuz located between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Britain later released the Iranian tanker in an effort to ease tension. Iran is concerned as it feels that Britain might come up with new sets of sanctions against it in joining the Trump administration.
Since Boris Johnson took the helm as prime minister, things have become very complicated in dealing with Brexit. BBC reported that Nazanin’s husband Richard Ratcliffe is feeling disheartened seeing the political climate in Britain. He fears that his family’s plight would be ‘forgotten.’ On September 2, Ratcliffe met the foreign secretary Dominic Raab and urged him to ‘pick a fight’ with the Iranian authorities in a bid to get Nazanin out. He emphasised that the foreign office must not follow the typical approach and wait for things to ‘de-escalate’ or ‘calm down.’ Raab reassured Ratcliffe that he would do his best in resolving Nazanin’s case. He has heard such assurances before from the officials. Suffice it to say that Iran has a history of using prisoners from other countries to exert pressure on those governments for their gain. Until their goal is met, Iran is used to playing cat and mouse with the other party for years. Nazanin is being dealt with by none other than the Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, thus getting her released will not be busy.
Richard Ratcliffe’s scepticism about accepting the words of government officials at face value is not unfounded. The government has other priorities at hand as the primary focus now is on the snap election to ensure a stable majority for the Conservative Party in Parliament. Of late, the House of Commons has become a battleground for Britain’s two major political parties. Let us look at the scenario of September 3. After Boris Johnson had lost his majority, it was total chaos in Parliament. The prime minister started ranting and raving for not getting his way and blamed it on the opposition. During his speech, Philip Lee quit Tories leaving Johnson without a majority. Johnson ridiculed the Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn and others for the fiasco. It was astounding to see the lack of decorum and civility that the parliamentarians are well regarded for. The proper etiquette that the British are known for went out the window when several members including the prime minister started shouting. Others turned and put their feet up in a lackadaisical manner. It would have been unthinkable during the premiership of Theresa May or other prime ministers in recent history. A British commentator compared them to a bunch of ‘peasants.’
The scene at Parliament spoke volumes of the state of affairs in British politics and of Johnson’s leadership skills. In the big scheme of things, Nazanin is just one person while getting out of Brexit with or without a deal is of dire urgency for Boris Johnson. However, one should not forget that Johnson’s unsubstantiated comments are still being used by the Iranian authorities in justifying Nazanin’s prolonged imprisonment. Since he made her situation worse, should he not own up and put more pressure on Iran to secure her release? That getting out of Brexit is more urgent cannot be an acceptable solution to Nazanin and her family. Johnson must know what Nazanin’s family has been going through; he was a family man once. It is true that Britain does not pay ransom money but as prime minister Johnson has certain leverages to influence Iran who consequently can free Nazanin.
Following the hunger strike which lasted for 15 days, a physically exhausted and mentally distraught Nazanin was moved to a hospital psychiatric unit. The Guardian reported that she was chained to her hospital bed, and her family in Iran was finally allowed to visit her. She described the ordeal as ‘pure torture’ during a telephone conversation with her husband. After six days in a tiny locked room, she was taken back to prison. To avoid her daughter seeing her being dragged to prison during visiting hours, she went voluntarily in the middle of the night.
Based on some spurious allegations of spying, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s life is systematically getting destroyed, her family broken, her daughter’s heart in unimaginable pain. In June, Gabriella turned five and she blew out the candles on her birthday cake without her parents. Along with Nazanin and her family, one can only hope and pray that her case is not shelved as a ‘cold case’ as Boris Johnson now is highly focused on the new election and Brexit deal.
Zeenat Khan writes from Maryland, USA.
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