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Day 1,565 #FreeNazanin – Last Chance Slipping?

Richard Ratcliffe
London, United Kingdom

Jul 15, 2020 — 

We have been silent for a while.

We were regularly updating on twitter, but stopped a couple of weeks back, following this latest news:

The news is really raw for Nazanin, and it took time for her to accept I might share it.

Most of the nightmares she had in solitary have in the end come to pass. Taking away her chance of another child would be the last, something far more final than just taking away four years of our lives, however bad that used to seem.

Nazanin is currently on furlough, effectively under house arrest at her parents some, since she was released temporarily with an ankle tag in March. Legally she should have been given clemency a couple of weeks later, but this has been blocked without explanation. Instead Nazanin is required to call in to the Judiciary twice a week for an update on their decision, one bag packed ready for home one bag for a return to prison. The weeks have become months while they decide which one.

We remain in limbo, waiting.

We have been pushing for the British Embassy to visit Nazanin while she is under this uncertainty , to show she is under their care. However, they are reluctant to do anything that might be too provocative for Iran.

Apart that is from the provocation of not settling the arms debt dispute, which is what caused Nazanin to be arrested for leverage in the first place, and has subsequently resulted in others now being held by Iran.

This March the debt settlement was again postponed until after the US elections, at the same time as Nazanin’s ‘clemency’ stopped being implemented. Since then we have watched on as more British citizens have been brought before the Revolutionary Court.

The Foreign Secretary and Foreign Minister Zarif have not spoken on the phone since Nazanin was released on furlough. No British Minister has spoken with his Iranian counterpart since March. Four months without a phone call on the issue is not perhaps the most obvious way to signal urgency to Iran.

Rather the drift seems like a stand off, a policy of managed waiting, of us and of media coverage, by both sides as the chess pieces are moved.

The politics of men’s stand offs has its blind spots, particularly how males decisions can affect women’s lives. No doubt there are things I do not know. But the cost to Nazanin, to all our family of this stand-off is very clear, and risks being permanent. There must be action soon before her last chance is irrevocably gone.

That is why I wrote the below letter to Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif. I wanted him to feel the cost of his personal role. We have not had an answer.

But by making the letter public, I hope it can at least provoke the Ministerial call that might bring this new stand off to an end, and that can bring Nazanin home before it is too late:


Dear Foreign Minister Zarif

I am writing to you in order to make absolutely clear the urgency of Nazanin’s situation, in light of recent medical tests, and her level of ovarian reserve. She needs to return to the UK before the legacy of your government’s treatment of her is permanent.

1.      Stalled Clemency Decision

As I wrote to your Ambassador on 6 April, some three months ago Nazanin came out of Evin prison with an ankle tag on furlough. Following the Supreme Leader’s intervention, she became entitled (rather than just eligible) under Iranian law to clemency. I have not written to you directly since that point to give the Iranian authorities space to implement the clemency announced for prisoners including her.

However, in the end that has been stalled. Events have subsequently drifted, and this law has not been implemented as the Supreme Leader required. She remains stuck at her parents’ home, her furlough extended until a decision is made on her clemency. It is not clear to me why your government is avoiding this decision, why now you are breaking your own laws – when her clemency cannot be denied.

But for the present Nazanin is kept isolated. Her ankle tag allows a range of movement of 300m. This does not extend to any shops, parks or medical facilities. As a high profile prisoner, the only political prisoner marked out with an ankle tag, she has very few visitors. Outside of close family, only one of her lawyers has dared to call by. This remains degrading treatment.

In this isolation, she has been required to check in with the Judiciary every few days for an update – on whether clemency will be granted, or whether furlough will be ended and she is returned to prison. Twice a week she has been required to call in, now for over three months, with a sleepless night the night before, and still with her two bags packed, one in case she is suddenly sent home, and one in case she is sent back to Evin prison. She is kept worrying perpetually over the road to be taken, as this decision is very deliberately  postponed. This is not what we had expected furlough to mean, indeed not what it has meant for most others.

Of course, this drift is underpinned by a diplomatic stand off. But it has created intolerable conditions for Nazanin. As I wrote once on our twitter account: “As flies to wanton boys, So sometimes the games of governments…” It is closer to a new phase of psychological torture than it is to the taste of freedom. It is deeply stressful day-to-day, with the fear of being put back into Evin Prison, perhaps into solitary, the memory of what is threatened by unaccountable men in dark rooms, the worry of not being able to get medical treatment.

This week finally an official from the Health Commission came to check on Nazanin following many lawyer’s requests, and my request to your Ambassador some 3 months ago. Nazanin pointed out she had had no medical care for over two years, just some tests – even when taken to hospital in chains, at the time of the oil tanker dispute.  She noted that her report would confirm it was necessary for Nazanin to be allowed treatment for her neck, her severe depression, and tests on her headaches and on the returning lumps on her breasts. She also recorded that there is nothing within 300m range around Nazanin’s parents’ home - no park, no shops, no library – and that the effect of being uniquely held with the ankle tag for over 3 months with nowhere to go and no one coming to visit would have had a severe impact on Nazanin's mental health and slow decline.

Nonetheless, this is not why I am writing. This week Nazanin received separate news of a different order.

2.      Blood Test Results: Playing with our Last Chance?

This week Nazanin got the results from a blood test she had requested privately from Mehraad hospital, while the prison authorities were refusing to extend her ankle tag range. The hospital had sent someone round to the house at least to check her bloods, and test if there was anything the prison authorities had been neglecting.

The test result that stood out was the result for her ovarian reserve, which has now fallen to 0.46 ng/ml.

To explain: the combination of being over 40 with under 1 ovarian reserve marks someone as high risk of never being able to conceive again, the range of 0.3 - 0.5 is very high risk. Nazanin was told by the doctor that the likelihood of her conceiving a second child, even with the assistance of IVF is now down to approximately 15%.

She was told she needed to keep calm. Stress has a direct effect on ovarian reserves, she was told. Her reserves can only deteriorate.

We cannot know whether the Iranian authorities were already tracking this deterioration. Nazanin was not told her ovarian reserve levels from any previous blood tests in prison, so we cannot know whether it is deteriorating quickly. As you know, Nazanin’s medical files have not been made available to her or her family these past 4 years, even when false claims about treatment provided were made by your Ambassador to the media, when she was prompted to go on hunger strike over lack of medical care.

For us, this was a shock. The discovery obviously left her devastated. She spent the day crying, with huge cramps, looking at pictures of Gabriella. She reflected that: "I always used to tell myself in Evin that they can't take my future away from me. But now they have."

Have no doubt this depletion of Nazanin’s fertility is a direct consequence of her incarceration, and the abuse and stress involved. This is on your hands. Nazanin had no problems with her ovarian levels  in the UK prior to being taken hostage by the IRGC in 2016 and used as leverage in a series of highly abusive ways.

It also changes the impact of Iran’s actions on Nazanin and our family considerably. It makes clear the risk of a permanent cost. There was always going to be a long legacy of recovery after four years. For the whole family it never was going to be a simple case of smile and go home.

But Iran’s actions now risk permanently preventing Nazanin from having another child. Nazanin’s deepest fear these past couple of years, certainly once the Judiciary were clear with her what her detention was really about, always was that the standoff would result in her not being able to have another baby. I told the Foreign Office: there is a big difference between having 4 years of your life casually taken from you to be used in someone else’s fight, and having the chance of another child being taken from you forever.

3.      The Price of Hostage Taking

Since I last wrote to you, over the past year Iran’s hostage diplomacy has become much clearer:

·        In April 2019 while in New York you offered to swap Nazanin for Negar Ghoskandi, and then retracted; she was later swapped for one of Nazanin’s cellmates;

·        In September 2019, while at the UN you briefed the British media that you would be able to push for Nazanin’s release if there were progress on the UK’s IMS arms debt;

·        In January 2020, your Ministry issued a warning to the UK on the eve of the next debt hearing implying more people would be taken;

·        In January 2020, the British Ambassador was arrested on false claims;

·        I went on hunger strike in solidarity with Nazanin, by the Iranian Embassy in London. In response, Iran took away protection from the British Embassy in Tehran, and pressured Nazanin to agree to become a spy for Iran, if she ever wanted to see her family again;

·         The one good thing, aside from the early promise of furlough before it became this new phase of diplomatic chess, was that on 9 October Gabriella was finally given permission to travel by the Iranian authorities, and on 10 October 2019 she finally returned home, with a new life to rebuild.

Three years ago, yourself and President Rouhani would deny any responsibility for your state’s actions in response to journalists’ questions over hostage taking, insisting on the independence of the Judiciary, and your separation from the state hostage taking value chain. In some ways, I am glad that since 2019 you no longer maintain the pretence. There is of course still a smoothness to the pitch, but I am pleased you are no longer washing your hands of responsibility. Your explicit marketing foreign prisoners while on international trips, the offers of swaps, the promise of threats is a lot more honest:  Nazanin’s detention has nothing to do with Iran’s laws.

The crime is not being a hostage. The Revolutionary Court has it upside down. Hostage taking is the criminal act. It is still criminal to hold Nazanin under international law. It remains a dirty business.

I also hope you stop and reflect in your quieter moments on the consequences this has on innocent lives. There are lots of grand topics for diplomatic stand offs. Sometimes the world reveals itself in small things, the meanings of state politics play out not on grand stages but on the shoulders of ordinary lives.

I am sure you are not proud of your role within Iran’s hostage diplomacy. Having to market Nazanin and others while on overseas trips is not your finest moment as Foreign Minister. Just as it was not your Ambassador’s finest moment to blame Nazanin’s detention on her family’s campaigning, or to be sent out to lie about offering me a visa to see her and claiming I refused and did not care for them both.

A dirty business makes for dirty hands. I am sure this is not the role you expected for yourself when you started out as a young diplomat, that one of your signature roles for which you are now known to the outside world is head of marketing for another faction’s hostage taking operation. A good diplomat requires empathy; it must be hard to be complicit. The euphemisms of diplomacy do not wash the spots away.

Following this week’s test results, Nazanin has asked Foreign Secretary Raab to reach out to you to bring an end to this diplomatic game playing, while there is still a final chance.

These past weeks, by contrast, we have seen the situation again deteriorating. Back in January your Ministry issued a statement warning of new reactions to potential “UK Officials’ Improper Measures”:

“It is obvious that the UK regime is still having anti-Iran delusions on the basis of a dangerous miscalculation and is seeking an escalation of tensions in the region and in its relations with Iran. The British leaders must know that the accusations against Iran could not cover up that regime’s (UK’s) blind obedience to the US. Britain’s scandalous failure to honour its JCPOA commitments, or even the refusal to abide by a verdict given by a British court on repaying hundreds of millions of pounds in debt to the people of Iran due to its fear of the US. Any new British mistake will face Iran’s harsh and proportionate reaction, and the UK bears responsibility for all of its consequences.”

This statement came on the eve of the UK-Iran debt arbitration, when you had also tweeted the following frustrations: “Diplomatic malpractice? UK is parroting US line & blindly abetting its terrorist adventurism in our region The last time UK was dragged along to infamy by the US was in Iraq war. How did that work out? Take the honorable path for a change: settle court-ordered debt to Iranians.”

As you know, no repayment happened. Nazanin was released on furlough with a clemency announcement expected just before the final arbitration hearing in Iran was due. Then progress on her case stalled when the debt arbitration was again postponed until after the US elections.

Since then we have seen one British citizen get 10 years from the Revolutionary Court, another is currently mid-trial before Judge Salavati, adjourned unusually at the beginning of this week. While for the US, the main signalling has been around swaps and the possibilities of coordination, for the UK the messaging has tended rather that more British targets might be taken soon. The decision for Iran and the UK to wait on the US elections and US decision making has looked very ominous from where we are sitting, watching the actions of the IRGC.

There has been a wave of Europeans sentenced, while oddly Americans are released. Maybe this makes sense in your head. But the risks of Iran using people like Nazanin as a straw man, or proxy for standing up to the UK; and the wider use of the UK – whether arrests of Ambassadors or employees of the British Council or BBC or even their relatives – as a proxy for standing up to the US, is only likely to increase. This is all likely to drag on and get more complicated.

We argue vehemently to the UK government behind closed doors that the lesson for them is that the UK needs to be much tougher with Iran’s hostage taking. There needs to be some accountability for hostage taking, across its whole value chain.

4.      Accountability or a New Life

For me, there will also be a different accountability if these games were to have a permanent legacy, and if Nazanin is not released in time for another baby. At this point, the only thing you can do for Nazanin is to get her home in time to have another child.

The IRGC’s specific targeting of the mother of a young child on holiday in Spring 2016 was always intended to be provocative, a cold calculation in order to shock the UK to finally act in the wake of the US swap success, and the failure to solve the IMS debt in court the month before. But it always carried this risk if they did not respond – that in the stand off Nazanin would risk losing the ability to have another child. Gabriella would lose the chance of a brother or sister. We warned of this coming to pass when Nazanin turned 40.

Eighteen months later, and here we are – on the precipice of a finality. As your chess game continues to linger, her hostage experience risks having a very permanent legacy for our whole family. It is one thing to recover from losing over four years of your life to someone else's fights, but it will be quite a different recovery journey for us all if it also means we can never have another baby. The loss of her ability to have another baby is entirely in the hands of the state you represent.

This week the visit by the Heath Commission to Nazanin had a positive interpretation – for potential medical treatment. But fundamentally it is a backwards step. The Iranian authorities have moved from promises of clemency, to a policy of managed waiting – kept in continued isolation, but now with the possibility of seeing a psychiatrist to manage the symptoms and distress. It is a bad sign that you are bedding down again for the long haul. We risk having settled into yet another phase of bargaining chip, when we are simply out of time.

Know that it will be on your hands, your account book if this means what we fear it does. And our relationship to that search for accountability will be different as to how we move on – if your denial of Nazanin’s first baby’s childhood, also turns out to be the denial of her last.

So I echo Nazanin’s call to Foreign Secretary Raab. It is time to end this. Likely we cannot wait until November. Quite literally every month counts. There remains a little girl growing up without her mother still. I hope not a little girl forever without a sibling. This has been cruel enough.

Sincerely yours,

Richard Ratcliffe

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