Letter to the Prime Minister
Nov 29, 2019 —
Two weeks ago I sent a letter to the Prime Minister Boris Johnson since had been in charge for 100 days without agreeing to meet to discuss Nazanin’s case. It is more strident (and far longer) than I normally put on this petition, since I wanted to put on record certain facts and responsibilities, which can get lost in how our story is told.
After two weeks without an answer, I decided to make the letter public in a newspaper. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/nazanin-zaghari-ratcliffes-husband-pleads-20984378 And for those interested in the details – in full below.
Thank you to you all for your continuing care.
Dear Prime Minister,
I am writing in relation to Nazanin’s case and to request a meeting to discuss how it might be resolved. I wrote at the outset of your premiership to request a meeting, and have signalled publicly and privately that I would like to meet. More than 100 days have now passed.
I would like to again request to meet, despite the election. We need a meeting for you to affirm that reuniting our family remains a priority for you, and an ongoing commitment.
No Stone Unturned
We last met in the aftermath of your misspeaking in Parliament about Nazanin, which were used by the Iranian regime to justify Nazanin’s second court case and a potential double sentence for her. For you it led to resignation calls, which we resisted – keen that her story not become just an appendage to yours. That error still remains one of the first things people associate with Nazanin.
Oddly you are yet to correct your comments in Hansard, despite the comments being rolled out by Iran and used against Nazanin even now. At the time, we saw your Cabinet allies being sent out onto the airwaves to dispute the slip’s severity, to muddy the waters around Nazanin’s case. The deflections informed months of propaganda, broadcast on Iranian TV for Nazanin to see from the walls of her cell. I had to ask the government to remind the Cabinet that you all knew she was just a mum on holiday being framed.
In your subsequent comments to the House of Commons (where it took a number of attempts to get a clear apology) you never acknowledged Nazanin’s innocence. When it came you denied the reason for the apology’s need – that your words had had any impact on her case. In private, you sympathised, though no apology came. In fact, during one meeting with me you went through the transcript of one TV show, Loose Women, line by line - quoting my loose comments whose consequences you felt were allowing you to be unfairly criticised. I apologised.
It was a high stakes first meeting – after 600 days of Nazanin being held, with that camera from The Sun flashing in our eyes.
That morning an unnamed Minister briefed a senior journalist at The Sun that Nazanin’s case had nothing to do with your mistake, but was over the UK’s arms debt to Iran (from a government company called IMS). When we asked you in the meeting, you denied any knowledge of the briefing. The other Minister present left the room in shock.
Before I had left the building, a press release had gone out in which you promised to “leave no stone unturned” for Nazanin. The same journalist at The Sun and The Telegraph then reported that you were working with the Treasury to ensure the debt would be settled. The Iranians were sufficiently confident for their Ambassador to London to announce on Telegram a day later that the debt was to be transferred in the coming days. Perhaps you did not check whether you had the relevant government departments behind you, but a Ministerial undertaking in public created clear expectations on the Iranian side. A price was set.
A few weeks later you went to Tehran and met with President Rouhani, the same day he presented his budget to the Iranian Parliament, with observers noting a new budget line for returned monies from overseas, a clear reference to the understanding that the IMS debt would be paid. Nazanin’s court hearing was simultaneously cancelled, and we came close enough to a release that the British Embassy even shared a potential release date of late December 2017. It was not to be.
Our last meeting followed your Tehran trip. You suggested a change of plan, that I needed to wait quietly for a number of months and that my campaigning was damaging to Nazanin, an argument often made by Iran. You even suggested that my silence was actually the wish of my Tehran family.
You will recall the messages we received from Iran in subsequent months that they were still waiting - for the UK ‘to pick up Nazanin’. And then the subsequent battles of me wanting to meet you with a lawyer present. But no subsequent meeting took place.
You did not engage with Nazanin’s case again until the Conservative leadership campaign, by which time Nazanin was on hunger strike and I was camped outside the Iranian Embassy’s door.
You insisted in this summer’s TV debates that your words in 2017 had had no consequences. Plainly, that was false. Your allies went further on the airwaves claiming that those who sought to blame you were apologists for the Iranian regime.
Sleeping hungry on the street, I took issue with your refusal to accept your share of responsibility for Nazanin’s suffering. Of course, politics is full of placebo promises. But promises made lightly by politicians can still weigh heavy on the shoulders of others. It was never the original mistake that caused my resentment, so much as the consequences of the cover up. I presumed at the time this was cold political calculation to avoid inconvenient facts, rather than you genuinely not noticing.
Since we last met, Nazanin has been on two hunger strikes and has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital in chains. That second court case against her has been revived. She is explicitly linked to the UK’s debt case, even by the Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif at the UN a few weeks ago.
Similarly, other British Iranians have been arrested and sentenced, particularly in Spring 2018 and again this summer. Developments in their cases have also been aligned to the UK’s IMS debt court process and its continued stalemate. The UK now has more prisoners held in Evin prison than any of its allies. Last week there was a new escalation against anyone connected to the British Council.
It remains unclear why you did not keep your word when Foreign Secretary, or why you briefed the newspapers if you had no intention of acting. Given the events subsequently, it remains unclear why you are yet to act on your promise now with the authority of a PM. , or at least to meet and explain. The word of a Foreign Secretary cannot be easily undone, especially when become PM.
Of course, this should not be our battle – an innocent woman, and her family caught in the middle of this fight. It is plain that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard operates like a mafia – with a mixture of brutality and business. It is a nasty, vindictive regime that tells plenty of lies. But they do have an honour code, and clearly resent being messed around. It was no surprise that your successor as Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, was not afforded a meeting with President Rouhani, when he took the same trip for Nazanin.
I told the FCO privately that I thought your actions directly led to the imprisonment of other British Iranians, that there are people in prison now, who would not be there if you had not made such promises and failed to keep them.
Two Tier Citizenship?
Since you became PM, Australia has secured the release of two hostages within months – in contrast to the UK’s failure to secure the release of Nazanin or fellow British prisoners after all these years.
When questioned in Parliament by Nazanin’s MP about the disparity between the two governments’ achievements, your Minister suggested that the essential difference between the British and Australian cases was Nazanin’s dual nationality: That was why the UK could not act, when Australia did. MPs came up to me afterwards to express their shock.
Dual nationality has long been used in Nazanin’s case to deflect public attention. It provides a convenient smokescreen for the government’s choices, and its conscious failure to reach a deal with Iran, in contrast to other states.
But the Government’s insistent emphasis on ‘dual national’ prisoners has dog whistle implications, as I told the Foreign Office afterwards. It helps reinforce the idea of a two-tier citizenship – between those who are ‘really’ British, and those ‘dual nationals’ the Government has less responsibility to protect. It brought back the line from a junior Minister’s comments at our very first proper Ministerial meeting, when we were told that the thing to remember about lots of these ‘consular cases’ is that while they had a British passport, many of them are ‘not really British.’
In the context of hostages held over a British government debt an emphasis on the fault of dual nationality sounds a lot like victim blaming. On social media some of your supporters have taken the hint – disputing the UK’s responsibility to protect those who are ‘really Iranian,’ inadvertently reproducing the IRGC’s propaganda. This sentiment is reinforced by the refusal of your Government to acknowledge Nazanin as a hostage or call out the Iranian regime for hostage taking of British citizens. It refuses to meet collectively with the hostage families. It instead chooses to keep us apart, as though we are unconnected, individual cases.
In public the UK chooses to avoid its obligations, emphasising that there is nothing more that the Government can do. Ministers are set up to manage expectations. We are kept spinning in a hamster wheel, encouraged to wait until Iran does the right thing. But inertia has a dangerous complacency, if nothing else moves. The spiral of desperation does not stop.
I have long complained of the UK’s reluctance to call Iran out properly for hostage-taking, or impose any cost on Iran for taking British citizens hostage, rather than lukewarm protest. When the Government granted Nazanin diplomatic protection it accepted her predominant nationality is British. The Foreign Secretary acknowledged that it is her British nationality which causes Nazanin to be held, not her Iranian. He granted Nazanin diplomatic protection with the acknowledgement that she and other innocent British Iranians are being held as “diplomatic leverage” against the UK.
Why then, has this diplomatic protection barely been used by the Government to take further steps against Iran? The risk of its non-use is a further hollowing out of UK protection.
Only a few weeks ago you met with President Rouhani in New York, all smiles, inviting him to visit the UK. I told the Foreign Office it would be astonishing for him to be afforded a visit while British citizens continue to be held hostage by his regime. Silence in the face of abuse is always enabling.
Under your government we have again had Iranian trade delegations resume their meetings with the UK, and a renewed emphasis on business deals. This policy makes sense for corporate interests, and government promises of trade, but plainly it does not protect ordinary people’s lives. A choice is being made by your Government. It is the choice to care about other things.
There is an accountability gap at the heart of Nazanin’s case. The mistakes of British foreign policy should not be falling on the shoulders of a mother and child.
We wrote to you when you were Foreign Secretary about our concerns over what was to come from failing to honour legal obligations. We warned you of the risk of failing to keep a perceived promise to pay the IMS debt, and the likely consequence of additional arrests. You did not acknowledge the risk in your answer, when this came to pass.
Instead there was an Ambassadorial reset. And then you moved on, though the consequences did not. For all its flamboyance and show, modern politics can sometimes seem like it has a responsibility gap – stuck in a Teflon sphere of ‘arresponsibility’, where responsibility does not apply.
Increasingly we have challenged the silences around just what is going on. We have warned about the gap in the Government’s reluctance to recognise Nazanin’s situation as a hostage scenario and downplay those held as ‘consular cases.’ Hostages are not protected by allowing the pretence that there is a criminal case. We have noted that the IRGC would be emboldened to take more without accountability and sanction.
Nazanin’s story is often in the news – at points we became almost reality TV - but not the part about Government’s debt to Iran. News around that is carefully curated - far less discussed than Nazanin’s unhappiness in prison, or that she denies the bogus spying claims (as do the UN and the UK officially though oddly this is also rarely said). When we linked new arrests and the revival of Nazanin’s second case to the failed promise to pay the IMS debt, the BBC reported it instead as a response to President Trump to pressure the UK on the JCPOA. The underreporting of the Government’s own interests and money fights in relation to Nazanin’s detention is consistent, and sobering.
We have been told too many times this money dispute is not relevant to Nazanin’s imprisonment, and there is nothing to see. We have been given a fluid and changing set of stories over the rationale for evading payment of the government’s debt. The briefing in public is that the Government is keen to solve it. The court papers (long kept secret) show a story quite different: full of provocative arguments designed to postpone resolution for years, if not forever, refusing to engage on alternative ways of honouring the UK’s debt that have been plainly available for years – these options have been disregarded, despite the implications for British citizens.
We have also queried the silences in explanations to Parliament: the contortions in answering parliamentary questions from Nazanin’s MP, the secrecy over a government company (IMS) not presenting its accounts to Parliament, stretching out its secretive 20 year court case, withholding its financial records from the archives in Kew, and the sensitivities of clandestine arms trading around the Iran-Iraq war, which masks that monies have gone missing on all sides. These days we advise Ministers in writing to check they really are being fully briefed.
It is this accountability gap that creates the fundamental distinction inherent to the ‘dual national’ rhetoric - between the decisions of those who get important offices, or sinecures and fees to stretch this out, while those who reap the consequences of this get to sit in a prison cell, even subsidising their own stay. This is the gap between those who profit from disregarding the UK’s internationally owed legal obligations, and those who get told to keep quiet.
This accountability gap is why we will be lobbying still after the elections for a right to consular protection. Of course, elections are full of promises of the Promised Land – with hopes of voting for our Moses, and the fear of electing a Pontius Pilate. When you first became PM we asked you to personally prioritise a right to consular protection for British citizens overseas: What ordinary people should expect from their Government when unfairly arrested abroad, and what accountability there should be when the Government fails them. We look to your Government to protect us still.
My job these days is to keep Nazanin and her family protected in the light and to manage her spirits while this prolongs. Soon time will run out.
We were very pleased to have Gabriella home finally. It was clear the IRGC thought hard about preventing it, with last minute clearance granted only a few hours before she was due to leave, when demands for huge sums of money suddenly fell away. Gabriella and Nazanin’s brother were still watched at the airport by a number of IRGC operatives as they left.
Gabriella comes back noticing where all the cameras are on the buses and tube with alarm, asking what they are watching for. She is still only able to sleep with someone holding her hand. There remains a stepdad dynamic, as she works out who she is able to trust again. I am thankful to the Embassy that Gabriella is out, and that she and Nazanin’s brother are away from a new round of escalations targeting those connected to the UK.
On the night of their departure, Nazanin was visited by the IRGC and told she would be taken back for that second court case in Court 15. She was told if she ever wanted to leave prison she would have to agree to spy for Iran, for her family’s safety. Those threats came in the wake of the latest IMS debt hearing on Oct 7, which again saw the UK government’s vehicle place every obstacle in the way of payment.. Ahead of this latest IMS hearing only weeks earlier she had been encouraged by the prison to hope for parole and had been told to request the second case’s dismissal.
On the day of the Court hearing, a panel of the Health Commission had been convened in Iran – available to rule positively on Nazanin’s case, if the UK looked like it was going to honour its obligations. When the UK continued to place roadblocks and inflame, this reprieve went quiet. Iran continues to use Nazanin’s suffering to signal its displeasure
Nazanin remains secluded, with no one from your Embassy allowed to visit, even after invoking diplomatic protection, even after the passing of 3½ years. The prison authorities continue to play games over family calls, requiring her to beg each week for a half hour call to Gabriella, which is sometimes given, sometimes not.
Nazanin’s medication has again been stopped. Again, she passes her days withdrawn into herself and her black dog. She often asks me on the phone - how can this be allowed to happen? Do they have no shame? She asks a lot “Why me?”
This weekend she reported two breakdowns, suddenly bursting into tears and uncontrollably shaking. This happens repeatedly some days. She tells me repeatedly she can no longer handle her imprisonment. Nazanin says how she no longer wants to live through what they are doing to her. Even if she knows her family is waiting, her ‘destiny does not allow.’ Those in power do not care enough to solve it, and she cannot keep going like this. She has lost hope, lost everything, in bottomless waiting.
Time will tell when Nazanin’s second court case actually happens. But I fear she will decide you are waiting for her to make the next move to get the Government to notice again. It has concentrated the minds of the prison, who have stopped her access to medication. Does she really have to attempt something extreme before your promise is kept?
Responsibility as PM
This is not meant to be a comfortable letter. But it is meant to be clear: In the time allotted to you as PM, I want you to use your power to take effective steps to secure the release of Nazanin and the others held in Iran. I want you to keep your word.
Since you took office, Iran has signalled with the briefings from the Ambassador here and elsewhere that it is looking to you personally to resolve the situation. When we met back in Autumn 2017 I mentioned that Nazanin was looking to you to be her hero. With the power of a PM, it is finally within your gift to solve things that were blocked before. We look to you for our Christmas miracle.
In the summer, I asked you and all the candidates in the leadership campaign to make a commitment to protect British citizens their personal pledge as leaders to be. I invited you down to the Iranian Embassy while Nazanin was on hunger strike. You did not accede to either request.
I am still keen to meet, not with the lawyers given your previous reluctance, but I would like to bring Gabriella. By meeting I would like you to affirm personally Nazanin’s importance and innocence, and your commitment to bringing Nazanin home. After the prevarications last time round, and especially the aloofness since, this has come under question. It is an important signal for us, for Iran, even for those of your supporters who periodically troll us. Nazanin matters still. Your word is your bond.
Nazanin has always held onto the promise that you would leave no stone unturned. You remember we painted stones in front of your Foreign Office to mark Mothers’ Day. Those painted stones still decorate the garden for Nazanin by the Royal Free Hospital, the promise still waiting.
Our story defines what a British passport is worth on your watch. The job of a PM is not just to make headlines, but in the end to make a difference. That starts with protecting citizens at their most vulnerable, home and abroad. Flowery promises do not keep people safe. In fact, undelivered they can have the opposite effect. Know that your actions cemented Nazanin’s place. We look to your actions to bring her home.
That promise remains on your desk. Until it is kept, the human cost for Nazanin and others will continue to grow.
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