The Case of the Jailed British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the 37-year-old British-Iranian woman who is serving a five-year sentence in Tehran’s Evin Prison for “plotting to topple the Islamic Republic regime,” has been on hunger strike since June 16, demanding his wife’s immediate and unconditional release. Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe has also been on hunger strike for more than a week, protesting her continued incarceration.

Mr. Ratcliffe has been sleeping in a tent outside the Iranian Embassy in London. Friends, journalists, human rights activists, and government officials have visited him. Iranian Embassy workers have erected a steel barrier where Ratcliffe has set up his tent to block people’s view of the entrance to the building. 

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe worked as a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Canadian news agency Thomson Reuters’ charitable arm. At the time of her arrest in April 2016, she was on vacation in Tehran visiting her family. Her daughter, Gabriella, who turned 5 earlier this month, has been living with her maternal grandparents in Iran since Nazanin’s imprisonment.

In an interview with Channel 4 News anchor Jon Snow on June 20, Iran’s Ambassador to Britain Hamid Baeidinejad said: “Mrs. Ratcliffe will be released after serving her prison sentence. We have relayed these concerns to the Judiciary because that is the decision of the Judiciary at the end of the day. Unfortunately, the way Mr. Ratcliffe is following the issue, politicizing and pressurizing, and the timing of his hunger strike is not very helpful at this stage. We have sympathy with him and his wife.”

The ambassador said that the timing of Mr. Ratcliffe’s strike — as Britain is in the process of selecting its next prime minister — added to the pressure being brought against Iran by the U.S. “He should think very wisely in what manner and what formality he wants to express his opinions and his concerns,” the ambassador said. “The way he is blocking the entrance of our Embassy; he is exerting pressure on the normal activity of the Embassy.”

Some people have linked the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to the settlement of a four-decade-old dispute over Chieftain tanks that Iran purchased from Britain and paid for fully in 1976, which were never delivered. However, both Britain and Iran have vehemently denied that the two were connected in any way.

“The problem is, if you pay ransom money to someone who is a hostage, then all that happens is, you might get that hostage out, but the next time they want something, they’ll take someone else hostage. That is the conundrum we have,” UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told BBC Radio 4’s Today program late last month. 

At around the same time, the Guardian newspaper reported that the U.K. Ministry of Defense (MoD) had initially refused a request by the Foreign Office to pay back more than 400 million pounds owed by the British government for hundreds of Chieftain tanks which Iran never received. The MoD had reportedly argued that the money would go directly to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). 

Back in 2017, the UK government had denied that there were any links between settling the dispute over the Chieftain tanks and efforts by Boris Johnson, who was then Foreign Secretary, to negotiate the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe on a visit to Tehran in December 2017.

“Repaying the UK debt to Iran is not related to the case of Mrs. Nazanin Zaghari; these are two separate issues,” the Mehr News Agency reported in November 2018, citing Bahram Ghasemi, then the Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman.

The day before his Channel 4 interview, Ambassador Baeidinejad sent a tweet that said: “We understand that hunger strike by the husband of an imprisoned Iranian person attracts the attention of Iran International TV, Manoto TV, BBC Persian and Voice of America (VoA). However, how long can this continue? It is a mystery to us that two or three reporters from every news outlet should stand outside the Embassy from dawn to dusk for more than five days?” 

Mr. Baeidinejad’s comments drew sharp reactions on social media.

Manoto TV reporter and presenter Mahshid Hosseini tweeted: “Your tweet shows a complete lack of understanding of the situation. The plight of a jailed Iranian woman and her husband on hunger strike do not fascinate us. It makes us sad. However, you do not care about these distinctions irrespective of whether you live in Iran or a democracy. You carry these old ideas with you no matter where you go.”

Supporters of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe have set up an online petition site with the hashtag #FreeNazanin. Amnesty International has also been trying to organize a protest in front of the Iranian Embassy in London. 

A tweet in English on June 20 by Nazanin Boniadi, an actor and human rights activist read: “‘It’s day 5 of Nazanin’ Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s hunger strike in Evin prison & ‘Richard’s outside the Iranian Embassy in London. I stand with them & join countless others in calling on the IRI to #FreeNazanin & all political prisoners/prisoners of conscience. In solidarity @FreeNazanin.”

Chris Matheson, the Labor MP from the city of Chester who visited Richard Ratcliffe on June 21, tweeted: “Tonight I was outside the Iranian Embassy in London to support Mr. Richard Ratcliffe, on hunger strike: Iran must #FreeNazanin.”

Meanwhile, on June 18, the UK government and Iranian Bank Melat reached an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed amount, ending a lengthy court battle. The agreement comes six years after the supreme court ruled that the sanctions against the bank had been unlawful. 

According to the London-based Zaiwalla & Co, the law firm representing Bank Melat, the initial claim was for £3.2 billion against the Treasury but later dropped to $1.6 billion plus interest. However, the final figure remains a closely guarded secret.  

It is unclear if this latest win for Iran will play any role in facilitating the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

[Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi]