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  • Mohamed Abdulkahar

Why is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe Imprisoned in Iran?

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been detained in Iran since 3 April 2016. Her five-year jail term is set to end on 7 March of this year. Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, publicised the warnings made by the Foreign Office saying: “If anything happens to Nazanin or her family or if she is not released to the UK on 7 March – there should be consequences.” Despite the Foreign Office’s advice to Richard to stay quiet, he publicised these warnings through tweets.

So, who is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, why was she imprisoned, and how did the world respond? This guide aims to address those questions.

Richard Ratcliffe at the Iranian Embassy in London last year with messages of support for his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been held in Iran since 2016.

Who’s Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe?

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a dual British and Iranian citizen who lived in London with her accountant husband, Richard Ratcliffe, before she was arrested. She studied communications management from 2007 to 2008. She obtained a British citizenship in 2013, and worked as a project manager for the Thomson Reuters Foundation charity as well as for the BBC Media Action charity. Mrs. Ratcliffe has a six-year old daughter whom she visited Iran with in 2016 to celebrate the country’s new year and visit her parents.

Why was she arrested?

Mrs. Ratcliffe was accused of conspiring against the Iranian regime, alleging she was plotting to topple the government in Tehran. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) said she was leading a "foreign-linked hostile network" while visiting the country, despite statements made by both the Thomson Reuters Foundation and BBC Media Action saying she wasn’t on official business, but on holiday.

Although no official charges were made public at the time, Mr. Ratcliffe was informed the charges were National Security Charges” during a phone call he made back in 2016. Mrs. Ratcliffe was also charged with spying, but she denied the charge.

Nazanin Zagahri-Ratcliffe, seen in an image released by the Free Nazanin campaign, on furlough release from Evin prison.

The UK’s response

The British Foreign Office said it is not legally obligated to provide assistance to a British-Iranian woman.. Although the British authorities provided Mrs. Ratcliffe with diplomatic protection in 2019, they didn’t send a consular officer to see her in jail or during her time under house arrest. In a letter obtained by The New York Times, the Foreign Office told Mrs. Ratcliffe’s lawyers said Britain did not “have a legal duty of care to British nationals overseas.” This response caused outrage amongst her family members, friends and human rights groups.

Iran’s response

Mrs. Ratcliffe was put in solitary confinement in April 2016. However, she was later put in a shared cell in May 2016 after being weakened by solitary confinement. In July 2016, the charges were made formal, and her first court hearing was set on 2 August, 2016. Mr Ratcliffe has argued that it was in part due to Boris Johnson’s comments in November 2017 where he cited Mrs Ratcliffe was in Iran to ‘teach journalism’, that the Iranian government charged Mrs. Ratcliffe with spreading propaganda against the regime in May 2018.

In July 2019, Mrs. Ratcliffe was put in Imam Khomeini hospital’s psychiatric ward where she was held under the IRG’s control. Mrs. Ratcliffe described the experience as “proper torture”, and was returned to prison before her house arrest in March 2020. Furthermore, Iran said it “does not recognize Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s British nationality, and the country does not recognize the concept of dual nationality in general.”

International response

Despite Iran’s willingness for a prison swap with countries like the United States and Australia, these countries seem to be quiet about the matter. While at an Asian Society event in New York, Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif expressed his authority and willingness to have a prisoner exchange, bringing the case of an Iranian woman detained in Australia to light as an example. In addition, Zarif said there were several other detainees in other US-allied nations on “phoney” charges. Finally, Zarif said that despite approaching US officials for an exchange, he received no response.

In 2019, a US State Department official said "the Iranian regime can demonstrate its seriousness regarding consular issues, including Iranians who have been indicted or convicted of criminal violations of US sanctions laws, by releasing innocent US persons immediately." Among those Americans are Robert Levinson and Siamak Namazi. Despite this statement, the US official did not address Zarif’s statement about being unresponsive. In addition, this did not address Mrs. Ratcliffe’s situation, further questioning the international stance on Mrs. Ratcliffe’s imprisonment.

For more information on this topic, head over to our section on Foreign Affairs.

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