Michael Gove said he doesn’t know what British mum Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing in Iran before she was arrested and jailed.
The British-Iranian was visiting family in Iran, but is being held on accusations of spying and spreading propaganda.
Blundering Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is thought to have added five years to her jail term after he said that she had been “training journalists”.
Prime Minister Theresa May faces mounting pressure to sack Johnson, who will not apologise for or correct his mistake.
The foreign secretary has admitted he “could have been clearer” with his comments and insisted they had been taken out of context.
Now Environment Secretary Michael Gove has made an “unhelpful” intervention.
Asked what Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing in Iran Gove told the BBC’s Andrew Marr: “I don’t know.”
Gove’s intervention, which has been branded “shameful” by Labour, will no doubt compound the fears of Nazanin’s husband Richard Ratcliffe, who made an emotional appeal for help from ministers in a HuffPost UK blog.
Confronted with Ratcliffe’s repeated insistence that his wife was in Iran on holiday with her child, Gove said: “In that case I take exactly her husband’s assurance in that regard.”
Asked if she was training journalists, he said: “Well, her husband says that she was there on holiday, and he’s the person who should know. Her family should be the people who are in our thoughts at this time.”
Johnson’s comments, made during a Commons committee meeting, were seized upon by Iranian state media as a “confession” but Gove has insisted it is the “extremists” in Iran who are to blame for her incarceration, not the carelessness of his Tory ally.
Gove added: “We know that the Iranian regime is capable of abusing the human rights of its own citizens. It appears here to be harming the human rights of someone whose plight necessarily moves us all.”
He claimed there was an “effort to shift the blame away from those who are really at fault here, and that is the Iranian regime.”
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was hauled back in front of an Iranian court after Johnson’s remarks and now faces 10 years in prison for additional charges.
Gove, however, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “One of the things I want to stress is that there is no reason why Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe should be in prison in Iran so far as any of us know. No evidence has been produced which suggests she should be detained.”
Jon Trickett MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, said:
“Boris Johnson’s cavalier approach to international diplomacy is compounded this morning by Michael Gove claiming he has no idea what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing in Iran. It has always been clear, she was on holiday visiting her family.
“It appears Gove is more interested in protecting Johnson’s job than the liberty of a British citizen in jail in Iran.
“Theresa May must ensure Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe does not pay the price for her ministers’ bungling.”