Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor
Thu, 16 March 2023 at 6:00 am GMT
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her legal advisers have marked the first anniversary of her release from an Iranian jail by urging Britain to sanction 10 Iranian officials they say are responsible for a resurgence in state hostage-taking of foreign nationals.
Since her release, the Ratcliffe family have combined a search for normality with a determination to campaign for dual national and political prisoners detained in Iran.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, accused the UK government of soft pedalling on Iran’s treatment of hostages since her release, while MPs on the foreign affairs select committee, faced with evidence of chaotic Whitehall handling of the negotiations for her release, favour a special envoy for hostages to be appointed to handle these crises in future.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released on 16 March 2022 after the then foreign secretary Liz Truss agreed that the £400m debt owed by a British government arms subsidiary International Military Services should be repaid to Iran.
Two British Iranians, Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof, remain in Iranian jails. A third dual national, Alireza Akbari, has been executed, and it is estimated 40 dual nationals have been arrested since a wave of street protests in Iran started last September. At least three dual nationals have recently had a death sentence confirmed.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe herself said she will not feel fully free until Tahbaz and other political prisoners are released.
“You can be free living in a free world, but not be free in your mind,” she said. A Channel 4 film due to be aired on Thursday night reveals how her continued detention led to desperation and fear, including at one point angrily swearing down the phone after her husband’s assurances her release would happen.
Speaking to the Guardian, Richard Ratcliffe said he feared ministers were losing interest in hostage-taking now that the negative publicity surrounding Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention has subsided.
“One year on, I do find it upsetting how the government won’t say how many Brits are currently held hostage by Iran, that they tried to imply to parliament this week that states do not take hostages, and that since Nazanin’s case, they have not recognised the torture of any British citizen by a foreign government. They have also stripped torture figures from their annual human rights report.”
He continued: “It is staggering, but also depressing that the issue of arbitrary detention for leverage has been dropped from the new integrated review in favour of prioritising medium powers that do not like discussions around human rights.
“I fear there is a recalibration of the protections of a British passport unfolding before our eyes. The anniversary of Nazanin’s release is a good day to start sending a clear message – that the UK will protect its citizens, and not just wring its hands.”
In 2021, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s legal advisers, Redress, submitted the names of 10 other Iranian officials to western governments asking that they be subject to human rights sanctions for state hostage-taking.
So far only one has been sanctioned by the UK, although three others had previously been sanctioned by the UK, but not specifically for state hostage-taking.
For legal reasons, Redress does not publicise the names of those it has asked to be sanctioned, but the identity of the 10 individuals was released by an Australian MP last week. In total, Redress intends to submit 30 names for human rights sanctions, and has asked for action to be taken by the British, Canadian, US and EU authorities.
The one Iranian sanctioned by the Foreign Office for “mistreatment of both Iranian and foreign detainees” and on the Redress list is Gholamreza Ziaei.
The Foreign Office minister, David Rutley, told the foreign affairs select committee on Monday that the UK did not believe a state could act as hostage taker, and instead uses the term “arbitrary detention for diplomatic leverage”.
Liam Byrne, a Labour MP, asked ministers “how had it taken five foreign secretaries over six years to bring home Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe? Over the course of 2019 through to March 2022 there was huge political instability, successive changes in ministers in the Foreign Office, the MoD [Ministry of Defence] and indeed No 10 … there has been a chaotic and disjointed breakdown in communications between three government departments over the course of successive ministers.”
Hostage families, he suggested, needed a single point of contact who had a reporting line to the UK prime minister “to knock the proverbial heads of government together”.
The Foreign Office is reluctant to cede this since diplomats believe the handling of complex detention cases should not be separated from the overall bilateral diplomatic relationship.
The Foreign Office said: “The UK will never accept our nationals being used as political leverage and we continue to press Iran to end this abhorrent practice.
“Since October we have announced six packages of human rights sanctions, including on Iran’s morality police, Iran’s prosecutor general and the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] in its entirety. We do not speculate on future designations.”