“We are caught up in a shadow play, only part of which we get to see.”
These are the words of Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been in solitary confinement and prison in Iran since 2016 for plotting against the Iranian government, charges she denies and which most people believe are fabricated.
His comments came as it was revealed that Nazanin will have to return to court next Monday, 2 November, to face yet more charges. She was temporarily released under house arrest in March because of the Covid pandemic but the authorities have told her to pack a bag, effectively suggesting that the case against her has already been decided and that she will return to jail.
Speaking to Index after the new court date was announced, Richard said, “These are days of trepidation in the build-up to Nazanin’s court case. It’s clear that bad things will happen, but also that we are caught up in a shadow play, only part of which we get to see. Just how bad is hard to know. Is this just to extend Nazanin’s sentence? Is it to take her back to a solitary cell? It is hard to keep imaginations calm. It feels like we might be back to the beginning.”
The beginning was 3 April 2016 when Nazanin was arrested by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as she was leaving the country with her then two-year-old daughter Gabriella.
At the time, Nazanin was working as a project manager for the Thomson-Reuters Foundation which delivers charitable projects around the world and does not work in Iran.
Initially, Nazanin was transferred to an unknown location in Kerman Province, 1,000 kilometres south of Tehran, where she was held in solitary confinement.
In September 2016, she faced a secret trial where it was claimed that she had been helping to provide training for journalists and human rights activists in a plot to undermine Iran’s government. Nazanin was sentenced to five years in prison on unspecified charges relating to national security.
After eight and a half months in solitary confinement, Nazanin was transferred to the women’s wing of the infamous Evin prison in Tehran, home to many political prisoners.
The next year, then foreign secretary, Boris Johnson issued a statement saying, “When we look at what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing, she was simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it, at the very limit.”
His remarks were widely criticised and Nazanin’s employer issued a rebuttal, saying that she was never involved in training journalists in the country. Four days after Johnson made his remarks, they were used in a further court case against Nazanin when she was told that she could face an additional 16 years in prison.
Also in Evin prison is Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, a writer and political activist who is serving a six-year sentence for charges related to an unpublished story she wrote criticising the practice of stoning in Iran.
Following Index’s tradition of publishing the work of imprisoned writers – dating back to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – we published poetry by Nazanin and Golrokh in a bid to support their cases. You can read the poems here.
Writing about her daughter Gabriella, then three, Nazanin wrote: “The diagonal light falling on my bed / Tells me that there is another autumn on the way / Without you.”
In March 2019, the UK government granted Nazanin diplomatic protection saying her lack of access to medical treatment and lack of due process in the proceedings brought against her were “unacceptable”.
The move failed to secure her release as has a petition which almost 3.5 million people from around the world.
Some, including husband Richard, believe that Nazanin is being held to put pressure on the UK government over a cancelled £650 million deal for military vehicles agreed with the Shah of Iran before he was deposed in the 1970s. Iran says that the UK owes it substantial interest on the unpaid debt.
Richard says, “We are clearly caught in a game of cat and mouse between Iran and the UK, and we have been pushing for a long time for the UK government to take responsibility for protecting Nazanin and the others, to stand up for their rights.
One of the staunchest supporters of the campaign to free Nazanin is her MP in the UK, Labour’s Tulip Siddiq.
Siddiq told Index: “Nazanin has once again been treated with utter contempt, and I am extremely concerned about her future and wellbeing. The fact that she has been told to pack a bag for prison ahead of her court hearing doesn’t fill me with confidence that this will be anything close to a fair trial.
“The timing of this development alongside the postponement of the court hearing about the UK’s historic debt to Iran raises serious concerns. I can only hope that there is work going on behind the scenes to resolve the debt quickly because we seem to be going in completely the wrong direction and Nazanin, as ever, is paying the price.”
She added, “The foreign secretary must assert the UK’s right to consular access and ensure that UK officials are present at Nazanin’s trial.”
Responding to the news of the new court date, Dominic Raab said, “Iran’s continued treatment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in this manner is unacceptable and unjustified. It tarnishes Iran’s reputation and is causing enormous distress to Nazanin and her family. Iran must end her arbitrary detention and that of all dual British nationals.”
Does the foreign secretary’s comment give Richard confidence that the UK government will bring effective pressure to bear on Iran?
“Rather less than four and a half years ago. But tomorrow is always another day.”
Ahead of Nazanin’s court date, Tulip Siddiq agreed to read one of Nazanin’s poems. You can watch it here: