“The Struggle to Free Nazanin” – Revelations from Richard Ratcliffe’s talk

by Alex Giannos, WCIA volunteer

On Wednesday, 27 April 2022, the U.N. Association of Wales (UNAW) hosted Richard Ratcliffe, husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, for a Zoom talk titled “The Struggle to Free Nazanin”. Mr Ratcliffe spoke of his experience trying to raise awareness of his wife’s arrest and subsequent incarceration in Iran.

After being detained in the Islamic Republic of Iran for six years, Nazanin was finally released and able to return to the U.K. on March 17.

According to the host of the talk, Robin Attfield of UNAW, when the talk was first organised, the working title was “Free Nazanin”. At the time, there was a lack of optimism surrounding Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case prior to her eventual release. The change in circumstances meant that the talk enjoyed a more upbeat tone than previously expected.

Ms Zaghari-Ratfliffe, who was born in Iran and later moved to the United Kingdom, was visiting Iran with her daughter Gabriella. The purpose of the trip was to allow her parents to meet their granddaughter for the first time.

Nazanin pictured with her daughter, Gabriella.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards arrested Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe at Imam Khomenei Airport, when she and her daughter were supposed to be returning to the United Kingdom. Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained and later accused of plotting to topple Ali Khamenei’s government, though no official charges were ever made public. Boris Johnson suggested in 2017, that Nazanin was “simply teaching people journalism” (in his capacity as Foreign Secretary at the time) – a suggestion he later withdrew and for which he subsequently apologised.

During his talk, Mr Ratcliffe revealed that it was initially difficult to ascertain any concrete information about his wife’s case, and that he was advised to wait for a period of a month before raising awareness about his wife’s situation. He stated that, with the benefit of hindsight, this did very little to help the Ratcliffe family’s situation, citing the number of years his wife spent incarcerated in Iran.

Mr Ratcliffe asserted that, as time passed, it became clearer that his wife’s arrest and subsequent incarceration had very little to do with a supposed plot to overthrow Ali Khamenei’s government, but a debt owed by the United Kingdom to Iran, for which Nazanin was used as a diplomatic bargaining chip.

He spoke of his hunger strike outside the Iranian Embassy in London, which was an act of solidarity with his wife, who had gone on hunger strike herself while in prison. He revealed that, while the hunger strike upon which he embarked later outside the Foreign Office may have attracted more attention to his cause, it was the hunger strike outside of the Iranian Embassy which of far greater concern to the U.K. Government, as it risked causing a diplomatic incident between the two countries.

One of the key revelations to arise from his wife’s case, Mr Ratcliffe continued, was that British citizens have a rose-tinted view of what the Government is willing and able to do when its citizens are threatened overseas.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was finally awarded diplomatic protection after years of campaigning by her family and organisations such as Amnesty International. Speaking on the matter, Mr Ratcliffe highlighted that Nazanin was just one notable successful case of lobbying for diplomatic protection amongst many cases of less fortunate prisoners detained illegally by foreign governments.

(You can read about events attended and promoted by the WCIA in association with Amnesty International which were in aid of Nazanin’s case here.)

When asked whether he thought that the current war in Ukraine, which has led to global shortages in food and fossil fuels, would allow resource-rich countries led by authoritarian regimes to imprison critics, academics, and innocent citizens of other countries such as Nazanin with impunity, Mr Ratcliffe responded that the Government is “inherently wary of criticising” countries of strategic diplomatic importance, and that the U.K.’s national interests in obtaining resources will always be prioritised over a few unlucky individuals.

The case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is not unique. In 2018, Matthew Hedges was detained in the United Arab Emirates for six months after being accused of working for MI6. Mr Hedges, who was not working for MI6, was conducting research for his PhD thesis, titled “The Post Arab Spring Regime Security Strategy of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)”. He was, much like Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, arrested at the airport on the day of his return to the United Kingdom. Mr Hedges claims that he was held in solitary confinement, drugged, subjected to long interrogation sessions, and beaten by Emirati authorities.

Mr Hedges was eventually pardoned by Khalifa bin Zayed Āl Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates and Emir of Abu Dhabi. While the University of Birmingham boycotted its campus in Dubai and Mr Hedges’s former alma mater, the University of Exeter, suspended its doctoral programme in Dubai, there have been no notable diplomatic or economic consequences for the Gulf state as a result of its actions.

Finally, answering a question regarding whether he thought it would be possible for Nazanin to return to Iran in the near future, Mr Ratcliffe stated that it would be a big risk for his wife to go back to visit her parents, but was positive that her parents would be able to visit the U.K. once an adequate time period has passed. 

Present were members of UNAW, the WCIA, and interested members of the public.

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