Richard Ratcliffe: The UK Government needs to look long and hard at its hostage policy

As Richard Ratcliffe enters day 16 of a hunger strike to protest against UK government inaction in the case of the continuing detention of his wife Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran, he says it is not the lack of food that is his biggest worry.

“It is the cold,” he says from his makeshift tent village outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall, just a short walk from the Houses of Parliament. Last Friday – Guy Fawkes Night – the mercury dipped to below freezing as a candlelit vigil was held to raise awareness of this wife’s plight, who has been detained in Iran for more than five years.

Nazanin, who was working for the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the time of her arrest, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2016 for “plotting to topple the Iranian regime”. As the end of her sentence approached, Nazanin was told she faced new charges of “propaganda activities against the government”. In April 2021, she was sentenced to a further year in prison. I spoke to Richard at the time in our podcast.

It is clear that Nazanin is clearly a pawn in a game of one-upmanship between the British and Iranian governments. There is no guarantee that she will be released even after serving the new sentence.

This is why Ratcliffe is carrying out his protest – to make the British government recognise that its strategy towards Iran has failed.

With his quilted jacket and woolly hat and mittens, Ratcliffe looks like many of the nearby rough sleepers. Yet few of those on nearby Whitehall are surrounded by pebbles painted by young children and carved pumpkins or have their tents festooned with fairy lights. Still fewer have a pile of Amazon deliveries from well-wishers.

Camped out in the heart of British Government, Ratcliffe has been visited by a steady stream of MPs, including the Conservative MP for Ipswich Tom Hunt today.

This in itself is quite unusual.

“I have certainly been visited by more opposition MPS than those in the government,” says Ratcliffe. “I have had a lot of visits from the Labour front bench. Of those in the Government that did visit, very few wanted their picture taken.”

He has not been short of other well-known visitors wishing him well, including the author Kathy Lette, Victoria Coren and TV presenter Claudia Winkelman.

Ratcliffe says that despite promises from former Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, little seems to be happening in official channels to secure the release of his wife.

“There have been no negotiations of substance for a while,” he says.

As the light faded and the temperature dropped again tonight, Ratcliffe’s hunger strike continued. Many experts say that the human body can endure around 25 days without eating before permanent damage occurs.

Ratcliffe plans to continue while he can.

“One of the things I have heard from other hunger strikers is that you eventually start closing in on yourself. That hasn’t happened so far,” he says. “You have to listen to your body though.”

Richard’s family and friends are naturally worried for his well-being and many are taking it in turns to keep his spirits up. As I speak to him, his mum – resplendent in a multi-coloured coat that belies the seriousness of the situation – pops over with a hot water bottle to keep the cold at bay.

Despite the cold and the growing concern of the effects of not eating, Ratcliffe will remain outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for now and certainly until later this week when Iran’s vice president Dr Ali Salajegheh leaves the UK after attending COP26 in Glasgow.

When the Government’s focus turns away again from the global ecofest, it needs to think about how it deals with Iran.

He says, “I don’t think the Foreign Office understands Iran properly. The Government also needs to look long and hard at its hostage policy and its ineffectiveness.”

Ratcliffe is clear on one thing that would help secure Nazanin’s release – the British Government could pay the £450 million that Ratcliffe and many others believe say it owes to the Iranian government. The money was paid to the UK in the 1970s by the then Shah of Iran to buy Chieftain tanks and armoured vehicles. When the Shah was deposed, Britain sold the vehicles instead to Iraq but kept the money.

Sign the petition to Free Nazanin here and, if you are in the UK, write to your MP.

#FreeNazanin: Charity worker faces new charges on Monday

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”115414″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]“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:[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_video link=””][/vc_column][/vc_row]