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Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with her daughter Gabriella

For a decade,NazaninZaghari-Ratcliffe, a 41-year- old British-Iranian woman had a normal life in north London. She had a home, a job, husband and a beautiful daughter named Gabriella. A 2016 visit to Iran changed all that. Nazanin was arrested and taken away at a Tehran airport by the members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, an elite faction of the government. She was accused of allegedly ‘plotting to topple the Iranian government,’ and ‘spying.’ After a family visit she was about to return to the UK from Iran with her 21-month-old daughter.

Since April 3, 2016,Nazanin has been languishing in one of Iran’s most notorious Evin prison in Tehran. She has vehemently denied the charges and has maintained that she was on a holiday. She had worked as a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.The Foundation operates independently of Thomson Reuters and Reuters News. Her work did not involve any plan to overthrow a foreign government, nor did she work as a journalist. Both the Foundation and Reuters have denied any involvement in any kind of plot as Nazanin’s reason for a visit to her native Iran.

There was a speedy trial, and Nazanin was tried as an Iranian citizen as Iran does not recognize dual citizenship. After the trial, she was found guilty of plotting to overthrow the regime. She was sentenced to 5 years in prison. Gabriella was sent to her maternal grandparents. Her husband Richard Ratcliffe remains in London, unable to get any permission to go and visit her in jail or bring his daughter back home.

In 2017, Nazanin Zaghari’s case got a lot of attention and became controversial because of then British secretary Boris Johnson’s inaccurate comments. He infamously said, ‘Nazanin went to Iran to teach young people journalism.’ Iranian state television immediately interpreted Johnson’s comments as an ‘unintended confession.’ Later he acknowledged his mistake but the damage was already done. It bolstered the Iranians to go after Nazanin with vengeance. The ‘Free Nazanin’ campaigners believed Johnson’s remarks risked lengthening Nazanin’s prison term as it was used by the Iranians as evidence.

The Iranian authorities gave no detailed explanation as to how Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was involved in trying to ‘topple the government.’ They only had released a statement saying that Nazanin had ‘membership of an illegal group.’ Human rights groups including the Amnesty International had called the accusations made-up. An  obvious question comes to mind: by holding Nazanin as a pawn, did the Iranian officials want something from the British government in exchange for her? There were a lot of speculations that were floating on the media as to why a mock trial was held. One was the 1976 botched arms deal where Iran bought hundreds of Chieftain Tanks from the UK but never received them. It was rumored that Iran wanted the past payment back in negotiating Nazanin’s release but didn’t want it to be interpreted as a hostage situation. After all, the money belonged to Iran. At the time Britain was considering ending the decades-old dispute. It turned out not to be true as the UK debt to Iran is a separate issue. It was just an opportunity to settle the dispute since economic sanctions were lifted in 2015 as part of the nuclear deal.

In the last three years, a lot of drama has unfolded to get Nazanin out of prison. Initially, she went on a hunger strike about the alleged refusal to give her proper medical care as she was having panic attacks. Since her imprisonment, her husband has been constantly campaigning to get her free. In late 2017, he met with foreign secretary Boris Johnson prior to Johnson’s visit to Iran. Several things related to Nazanin’s case were discussed, including granting her diplomatic protection and to elevate her case from consular issue to state matter. None of that materialised as Iran refused to allow such a proposal, since it was treating Nazanin only as an Iranian citizen. Iran’s judiciary acts as an independent entity and put a limit to what the moderate government of Hassan Rouhani could discuss about the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case.

After Jeremy Hunt took over the foreign office from Boris Johnson, he got personally involved to put pressure on Tehran to get Nazanin released.He finally, put her under diplomatic protection, but without any effect. During a visit to Tehran, he had lobbied Iranian ministers with the hope that they can influence the judiciary’s decision concerning Nazanin on compassionate grounds. Bearing gifts for Gabriella from his own 4-year-old daughter, Hunt went to meet Nazanin’s family. He had assured them that he was doing all he could to secure her freedom. He wasn’t able to make headway. Hunt returned to London with one of the matching dolls that Nazanin had made for her daughter and for Hunt’s. Gabriella gave him a drawing of a happy family of three.In January of 2019, Hunt heard from Nazanin’s husband that she was asked by two members of the Revolutionary Guards to ‘spy on Britain’s Department for International Development,’ to secure her freedom. The revelation prompted Hunt to summon Iran’s ambassador.

In June, Nazanin threatened another hunger strike after she was refused immediate medical care upon finding lumps in her breast. To draw more attention to her plight in prison, her husband started a joint hunger strike on the pavement outside the Iranian Embassy in London. After the hunger strike ended, her jailers tightened the rules of her imprisonment. She is allowed only one visit a month with her family and is barred from making international calls, according to the ‘Free Nazanin’ campaign.

Since Boris Johnson took the helm as prime minister, things have become very complicated in dealing with Brexit. BBC reported that Nazanin’s husband Richard Ratcliffe is feeling disheartened seeing the political climate in Britain. He fears that his family’s plight would be ‘forgotten,’and Nazanin’s case is going to be shelved. A week ago,Ratcliffe met with the foreign secretary Dominic Raaband urged him to ‘pick a fight’ with the Iranian authorities in a bid to get Nazanin out. He emphasised that the foreign office must not follow the typical approach and wait for things to ‘de-escalate’ or ‘calm down.’Raab reassured Ratcliffe that he will do his best in resolving Nazanin’s case. He has heard such assurances before from the officials and he is at his wits’ end. Suffice it to say that Iran has a history of using prisoners from other countries to exert pressure on those governments for their gain. Until their goal is met, Iran is used to playing cat and mouse with the other party for years. Nazanin is being dealt with by none other than the Iran’s Revolutionary Guards,thus getting her released will not be easy.

Richard Ratcliff’s skepticism about accepting the words of government officials at face value is not unfounded. Government has other priorities at hand as the primary focus now is on the snap election to ensure a stable majority for the Conservative Party in Parliament. Of late, the House of Commons has become a battleground for Britain’s two major political parties. After Boris Johnson lost his majority, it was total chaos. The prime minister started ranting and raving for not getting his way and blamed it on the opposition.The scene at the Parliament spoke volumes about the state of affairs in British politics and of Johnson’s leadership skills. In the big scheme of things, Nazanin is just one person while getting out of Brexit with or without a dealis of dire urgency for Boris Johnson.

However, one shouldn’t forget that Johnson’s unsubstantiated comments are still being used by the Iranian authorities in justifying Nazanin’s prolonged imprisonment. Since he made her situation worse, should he not own up and put more pressure on Iran to secure her release? That getting out of Brexit is more urgent cannot be an acceptable solution to Nazanin and her family. Johnson must know what her family has been going through; he was a family man once. It istrue that Britain doesn’t pay ransom money but as prime minister Mr Johnson has certain leverages to influence Iran who consequently can free Nazanin.

Following the hunger strike, a physically exhausted and mentally distraught Nazanin was moved to a hospital psychiatric unit. The Guardian reported that she was chained to her hospital bed,and her family in Iran was given permission to visit her.She described the ordeal as ‘pure torture’ during a telephone conversation with her husband. After six days in a tiny locked room, she was taken back to prison. To avoid her daughter seeing her being dragged to prison during visiting hours, she went voluntarily in the middle of the night.

Based on some spurious allegations of spying, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s life is systematically getting destroyed; her family broken, her daughter’s heart in unimaginable pain. In June, Gabriella turned 5 and she blew out the candles on her birthday cake without her parents. Along with Nazanin and her family, one can only hope and pray that Nazanin will not be forgottenas Boris Johnsonnow ishighly focused on the new election and Brexit deal.

Zeenat Khan writes short stories and newspaper columns.


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