As Richard Ratcliffe surveys the London home he used to share with his wife Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, he can’t yet bring himself to believe she could be walking through the front door again on Monday for the first time in five years.
Their daughter Gabriella’s dolls and toys have taken up residence on the surfaces, as has the mounting paperwork surrounding her case, and Richard is so uncertain about whether Nazanin will be returning when her prison sentence is completed on Sunday, March 7, that he hasn’t tidied up.
He said: “We’ve had a number of false dawns. Part of this is psychologically not wanting to be waiting.
“Nazanin always says: ‘There’s something really quite sad about packing your bag ready to leave prison and then having to unpack it again because you haven’t.’ There’s something similar for me about getting the flat ready for her return and then there’s no homecoming, so I’m not quite getting ready in that sense.”
British-Iranian dual national Nazanin has been detained in Tehran since 2016, when she was sentenced to five years in prison over allegations, which she denies, of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government. She was arrested at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport while travelling to introduce her then-baby daughter Gabriella, to her parents.
The 42-year-old has been out of prison since last spring due to the coronavirus crisis, and has been under house arrest at her parents’ home in Tehran. She wears an ankle tag.
After her mother’s imprisonment, Gabriella lived with her grandparents in Tehran, visiting Nazanin just once a week. She was reunited with her father after three years when the family took the difficult decision to return her to the UK in October 2019 to start school.
Speaking to HuffPost UK five days before Nazanin’s supposed release date, Richard described himself and his wife as becoming increasingly “twitchy”, given they have heard nothing from the Iranian authorities.
Nor have they had any solid assurances from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Richard spoke with foreign secretary Dominic Raab last week, who he says is hopeful that Nazanin’s release will be “soon” – but that he cannot guarantee it will be on Sunday.
He said: “I was saying: ‘Look, it’s a big deal if she’s held up after the 7th, that’s just illegal under every kind of law you want.’ Under Iranian law, to take somebody past the end of their sentence – it doesn’t often happen, they normally invent something else if they want to keep hold of someone. So, I wanted to land the point very clearly that this is not normal and the government can’t just let it slide. They have to do something on the 8th to be credible.
“It’s deeply problematic for the credibility of the UK’s protection more broadly. All this says is that the UK’s protection is worth nothing.”
In 2019, Jeremy Hunt – who was then the foreign secretary – invoked rarely-used diplomatic protection in response to Iran’s treatment of Nazanin.
That year, Nazanin embarked on a hunger strike for three days, saying the Iranian prison authorities had refused her treatment for a series of medical conditions, including lumps in her breasts, severe neck pain, and numbness in her arms and legs.
But Tehran has refused to acknowledge the British-Iranian mother’s dual nationality and said the UK’s use of diplomatic protection was illegal. Hopes of a breakthrough were dealt a further blow by Iran’s ambassador to the UK Hamid Baeidinejad, who rejected the government’s move.
He said governments could only offer diplomatic protection for their own nationals and the UK was “acutely aware” that “Iran does not recognise dual nationality”.
Baeidinejad then blocked Richard on Twitter.
Richard said: “It’s extraordinary. As a way of accountability, I find it staggering that in five years since kidnapping my wife they have never once deigned to meet me and explain it. It’s utterly dysfunctional. It’s outrageous.”
In December, Hunt wrote in The Times that the UK is “beginning to look weak” over its failure to protect citizens imprisoned in Iran. He said “We must show the world that if you imprison a British citizen on trumped-up charges you will pay a very heavy price because Britain is a major player on the world stage and intends to remain one.
“Allowing ourselves to be pushed around like this at the moment of post-Brexit renewal sends the opposite signal.”
And in July 2019, more than 200 MPs called for the new prime minister Boris Johnson to use his powers to secure Nazanin’s safe release from Iran. In a much-criticised blunder, Johnson was foreign secretary himself when said in 2017 that she had been in Iran “teaching people journalism” – despite her family’s insistence that she was there to visit relatives.
Days later, Iran used his words as evidence against Nazanin.
Labour’s Tulip Siddiq has repeatedly called on Iran to end its “hostage diplomacy” and release Nazanin.
It has been claimed Nazanin is being held to force the UK into settling a multi-million-pound dispute with Iran. The debt dates back to the 1970s when the then-shah of Iran paid the UK £400m for 1,500 Chieftain tanks.
After he was toppled in 1979, Britain refused to deliver the tanks to the new Islamic Republic and kept the money, despite British courts accepting it should be repaid.
Richard said: “There’s been this fig leaf around Nazanin’s imprisonment and that fig leaf disappears on Monday the 8th.
“We are publicly counting down, in defiance as much as hope and just making clear this is when things should end. One of the conversations I had with the foreign secretary last week was him saying: ‘In all honesty March 7 is not a significant date for us at the Foreign Office,’ and I’ve been saying to him: ‘Well it absolutely is to us as a family.’
“You can’t say that to a prisoner or a family: ‘Technically it’s the end of your sentence and I know you’ve been counting down for years for that, but it’s all arbitrary really.’ He’s [Dominic Raab] right, it is all arbitrary, but the government wouldn’t admit that years back. They were hiding behind the legal fig leaf then – you can’t have it both ways.”
“I do think there will be a naked brazenness to holding Nazanin after the end of her sentence. That puts us into a different legal space from any other hostages I can think of.”
If, on Monday, Nazanin is not released, “we become the only case where a hostage has been kept after the end of her sentence,” said Richard.
“And the only one with diplomatic protection. Formally the government has said, this is wrong. When they invoked diplomatic protection they basically said this is a really big deal, you are injuring the British state by your treatment of Nazanin. March 8 marks two years of them invoking diplomatic protection. And what have they done with it? It’s like threatening to pick a fight and then doing nothing of the sort.”
Richard is also trying to manage the expectations of the couple’s daughter, who is now six, though he’s not entirely sure how he can prepare her for what may or may not be about to happen.
He said: “Part of your instinct is always to protect your children from bad stuff. I don’t think we really can with this.
“When she realised Nazanin was doing a countdown, she started to do one as well. She’s counting down the days but as we’ve got closer we’ve got a little more sketchy about whether mummy really is coming back on Monday or not.
“She’s still basically believing it’s going to happen, but obviously there might still be some delays. And she has had a fair number of times where her mum and dad have let her down in that regard.
“We promised that Nazanin would be there for her birthday and then it hasn’t happened. She was very pleased a few weeks ago when she overheard us talking about the release date and we explained that mummy should come home that day. She can pick up on the fact that we are all a bit less sure now.
“There’s a lot of: ‘When mummy comes back we can do that.’ It’s almost got that kind of Christmas holiday feel to it, and then it becomes a postponed Christmas holiday, which is where she probably emotionally engages with it.”
Richard has been told the Foreign Office is more hopeful of Nazanin’s release the closer Iran gets to its next presidential elections, which are in June.
While Richard fears that nothing at all will happen on March 7, when his wife’s original sentence is due to end, he is also worried that the Iranian regime may restart a legal process that began in November when she was brought before courts once again on charges of spreading propaganda against the regime.
He said: “It hasn’t been picked up again. Nothing’s happened on it. Formally it hasn’t died either. It’s a lot more effective as an open court case in terms of keeping her there, than it is as a sentence.”
If convicted of the charge, Nazanin could face another year in prison. If the Iranian courts make the argument she is a repeat offender, they could double it, though technically any sentence should run concurrently with her first sentence and thus will have been spent.
However, as Richard notes: “It’s not impossible that the charges will change. If they were to find a new charge, then that would not necessarily be concurrent. They could drag it on theoretically for 20 years if they wanted to. There’s no statute of limitations on this stuff.
“It is perfectly possible that on Sunday March 7 we get spectacularly good news, it is perfectly possible that we get a signal of bad news or even spectacularly bad news. It’s perfectly possible and probably most likely that just nothing happens.
“One of the things I find frustrating about the UK government’s approach is I don’t think there’s any cost to inertia on the Iranian side. We’ve lost five years of our lives for all this. And these guys can keep waiting. I think the British government can keep waiting. Ultimately states have long memories and long patiences, but ordinary lives run at a rather quicker pace.
“Back in August I was in conversation with the government and I said there were two tests for me. If they reopen the second court case again or if they don’t release her back to the UK at the end of her sentence, then all bets are off as to how long this goes on.
“If nothing happens on March 7, they need to do something robust on March 8. For Nazanin, for others and for others who are not yet taken but could be, because hostage-taking is a growing part of Iranian diplomacy.
“Nazanin just wants to come home and have a cup of tea on the sofa. But I don’t think I will feel safe to imagine a reunion at the airport or the beginning of a new life until she’s out of Iranian airspace.”
A spokesman for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said: “The foreign secretary and FCDO remain in close contact with Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family, and continue to provide our support.
“We do not accept Iran detaining dual British nationals as diplomatic leverage. The regime must end its arbitrary detention of all dual British nationals.
“We continue to do everything we can to secure the release of arbitrarily detained dual British nationals so that they can be reunited with their loved ones.”