Liam Fox has been condemned after he said that Boris Johnson’s claim that a British woman being held in an Iranian prison was training journalists was merely a “slip of the tongue”.
There are fears Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is serving a five-year sentence, could have her time in jail extended as a direct result of the foreign secretary’s comment.
She was summoned to an unscheduled court hearing last weekend at which Johnson’s remarks were cited as proof that she had been engaged in “propaganda against the regime”.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family maintain she was simply on holiday in Iran to show her infant daughter Gabriella to her grandparents.
But Fox told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme that any blame should rest with Iran not with Johnson.
“We all make slips of the tongue and we have got to be very careful that we are not over reacting to this,” the international trade secretary said.
He added to Sky News: “I think what we are seeing here is an attempt to discredit the foreign secretary without thinking first of all what the impact may be and what excuses it may give to the Iranian regime to act improperly.”
Labour MP Tulip Siddiq told HuffPost UK she was “shocked and dismayed” by Fox’s comments.
Johnson called Iran’s foreign minister on Tuesday morning.
He is also facing demands to publically correct what he said in an effort to prevent her sentence being lengthened by an extra five years.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, told the BBC this morning he wanted Johnson to retract what he said in parliament “and say clearly that Nazanin wasn’t training journalists and that she was just there on holiday”.
“I have promised Nazanin that it’s still possible that they will be home for Christmas. I’m still battling on those terms,” he said.
Johnson told the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee last week:
“When I look at what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing, she was simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it.
“(Neither) Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe nor her family has been informed about what crime she has actually committed. And that I find extraordinary, incredible.”
The Thomson Reuters Foundation, which employs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, has urged Johnson to correct his “serious mistake”.
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said Johnson should quit if his actions have damaged Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s prospects of freedom.
Siddiq, the MP for Hampstead and Kilburn where Zaghari-Ratcliffe lives, said: “I am in equal measure shocked and dismayed by Liam Fox’s comments this morning.
“To say that we shouldn’t ‘over-react’ to Boris’s grave error simply shows him as another government minister who is ignorant to the details of this young mother’s tragic case.”
Conservative MP Anna Soubry said Johnson’s actions were “appalling”.
She said on Twitter: “In ‘normal’ times Boris Johnson would have been sacked long ago.”
Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas said Johnson “must be sacked”.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “Last week’s remarks by the Foreign Secretary provide no justifiable basis on which to bring any additional charges against Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.”
Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, expressed disappointment that Fox had chosen to defend Johnson rather than “provide vital clarification over the fact that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a charity worker who was on a family trip in Iran when she was arrested last year”.
“Zaghari-Ratcliffe has already been subjected to solitary confinement, a grossly unfair trial and now reportedly faces the threat of a new criminal charge,” she told HuffPost UK.
“The Foreign Secretary’s call last week for Zaghari-Ratcliffe to be released was welcome, but he must clarify his remarks about her work and the purpose of her visit to Iran.
“Now is the time for a straightforward, public clarification from the UK Government about Zaghari-Ratcliffe being the victim of a glaring miscarriage of justice who should be released immediately and allowed to return back to Britain with her daughter Gabriella.”
Redress, a human rights organisation who has worked with Nazanin’s family to secure her release, told HuffPost UK that Johnson needs to “focus on the serious repercussions of his words”.
“As a British citizen in a deplorable situation Nazanin has every right to expect that her Foreign Secretary will be able to advance her case,” Redress director Carla Ferstman said.
“Instead, she has had to go through the trauma of being hauled in front of a judge again and may well face an extension of her time in prison. To blow this off as a simple mistake belies the importance of his position and the seriousness of Nazanin’s plight. Boris Johnson must make it clear publicly and as soon as possible that she is an innocent mother who was simply on holiday and must be brought home immediately.”