Politics

Why is the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe on a hunger strike?

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been detained in Iran for more than five years despite public outcry, hunger strikes and a lack of evidence. Here's what you need to know

nazanin zaghari-ratcliffe husband, richard

Richard Ratcliffe believes the UK government has failed to protect his wife. Image: Garry Knight/Flickr

The husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the woman detained in Iran since 2016, is on hunger strike outside the Foreign Office in London.

Richard Ratcliffe is putting pressure on the prime minister to meet with an Iranian delegate during COP26 – and pay the debt he believes would trigger the release of his wife and other British detainees. His petition to free Nazanin has been backed by nearly four million people so far.

Nazanin’s ill treatment in Iran during her arbritrary detainment amounts to torture, experts warned after analysing her medical records. 

Many in the UK believe Nazanin is being held as leverage against the UK government over an outstanding debt. Here’s what you need to know about the devastating case.

Who is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe?

Nazanin is a 42-year-old Iranian-British dual national who has spent her career working with charities and news organisations.

She was born and grew up in Tehran, where she studied English literature and worked as a teacher before moving to the UK in 2007.

Before travelling to Iran in 2016, she lived in London with her husband Richard, an accountant, and their young daughter Gabriella.

When and why was Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe detained in Iran?

In 2016, Nazanin took her then-one-year-old daughter, Gabriella, to visit family in Tehran for Iranian new year. She was arrested just before boarding their return flight and given no explanation.

Authorities later claimed she had been plotting against the Iranian government and sentenced her to five years in prison. No evidence has ever been made public in her prosecution.

Nazanin was placed in solitary confinement for nearly nine months and given limited contact with her family while authorities refused her access to her lawyer.

Doctors who studied her medical records said she developed post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder during the ordeal.

She has also been denied vital medical care, they said, as evidenced by physical problems in her neck, shoulders and arms.

Her conditions could deteriorate if she is not reunited with her family soon and she “needs to be in a safe and non-threatening environment,” they said.

Despite furious campaigning by her family and others in the UK, Nazanin was kept behind bars until she was given temporary prison leave during the Covid-19 outbreak. She went to stay with her parents in Tehran and could not leave the country – or even travel more than 300 metres from her parents’ home due to the ankle tag she was forced to wear.

Her sentence officially ended on March 7 this year. Officials removed her ankle tag but, a week later, Nazanin was handed a new sentence of one year for “propaganda activities against the regime” in Iran.

Nazanin denies all charges. All appeals against the charges and sentences have been turned down since the beginning of her detainment.

Why is her husband on hunger strike?

Richard Ratcliffe has been on hunger strike since October 24 while camped outside the Foreign Office in central London.

He wants Boris Johnson to meet with Iranian officials at COP26 to negotiate Nazanin’s release. This is his second hunger strike, the first of which lasted 15 days outside the Iranian embassy in 2019.

“I never expected to have to do a hunger strike twice. It is not a normal act,” Richard said.

He told Good Morning Britain: “I have physically seen the effects, and have got very cold hands and feet. I’m definitely looking rougher and feeling rougher. I don’t feel hungry but I do feel the cold more.

“It’s a short-term tactic. You can’t take it too long or you end up in a coma.”

Some supporters of the campaign want Richard to stop to prevent serious damage to his health. But friends and family are monitoring his wellbeing round the clock.

“One of the things with a hunger strike is you get more stubborn the longer things go on, so you become less able to flexibly let go,” he said.

Members of the public and MPs from all political parties have visited Richard to show solidarity with his demonstration.

That included Labour leader Keir Starmer, who told Richard: “There has to be a resolution to this.”

Victoria Coren-Mitchell also visited, calling Richard “the most amazing husband and father ever seen”.

“They’re a normal family that a terrible thing’s happened to,” she said.

“Nazanin is a totally innocent woman who needs to come home to her family. Their ongoing torment is a major failure of British diplomacy in its core responsibility to protect its citizens.”

Sacha Deshmukh, chief executive for Amnesty International UK, said the hunger strike is “not a pantomime”.

“He has vowed to remain on hunger strike until Nazanin’s case has been addressed. Time is running out and we urgently need the prime minister to intervene and break the deadlock.”

What would make Iran release her?

Iranian authorities said Nazanin and other Brits are being held because of a £400m military debt owed by the UK which dates back to the 1970s, she and her family have said. 

Neither government has publicly stated that the money is the reason for Nazanin’s imprisonment. But last year, Westminster officials agreed it was a legitimate debt for the first time. The defence secretary told Nazanin’s lawyers that the government was exploring options to pay the debt.

It is likely the UK government does not want to be seen paying what could be perceived as a ransom for hostages. Some parts of the Iranian regime are also considered terrorist organisations and giving them money would be a breach of international sanctions.

What is the government doing to help Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe?

The UK government has been repeatedly criticised for its failure to take decision action which would bring Nazanin home to her family.

In 2017, Boris Johnson – then foreign secretary – said she had been “simply teaching people journalism”, and came under fire for putting her more at risk by undermining her defence that she was in Tehran on a family holiday.

Her employer, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, demanded Johnson correct his mistake. “She has not a journalist and has never trained journalists at the Thomson Reuters Foundation,” they said. Johnson’s statement was later used as evidence against her in court.

Richard Ratcliffe and her lawyers have met with politicians including foreign secretary Liz Truss but believe too little is being done to help Nazanin who they say is being held “hostage”.

Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, said the UK was looking to “resolve [the debt] in good faith”, adding: “Frankly, that is no excuse for the decision of the government of Iran to arbitrarily detain, not just Nazanin, but a range of British nationals and they ought to be immediately released.”

The UN has repeatedly called for her release. 

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