The former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt says the UK “is beginning to look weak” over its failure to protect citizens imprisoned in Iran, such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
The 42-year-old British-Iranian dual national has been detained in Iran since 2016, when she was sentenced to five years in prison over allegations, which she denies, of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government.
She has been afforded diplomatic protection by the UK government, which argues that she is innocent and that her treatment by Iran failed to meet obligations under international law.
Hunt has written in the Times that for diplomatic protection to have meaning there had to be consequences for Tehran.
“It is not clear to me that there have been any; something that is beginning to make us look weak”, he said.
He added: “We must show the world that if you imprison a British citizen on trumped-up charges you will pay a very heavy price because Britain is a major player on the world stage and intends to remain one.
“Allowing ourselves to be pushed around like this at the moment of post-Brexit renewal sends the opposite signal.”
Imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran
Arrest in Tehran
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is arrested at Imam Khomeini airport as she is trying to return to Britain after a holiday visiting family with her daughter, Gabriella.
Release campaign begins
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s health deteriorates after she spends several days on hunger strike in protest at her imprisonment.
Boris Johnson intervenes
Boris Johnson, then Foreign Secretary, tells a parliamentary select committee “When we look at what [she] was doing, she was simply teaching people journalism”. Four days after his comments, Zaghari-Ratcliffe is returned to court, where his statement is cited in evidence against her. Her employers, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, deny that she has ever trained journalists, and her family maintain she was in Iran on holiday. Johnson is eventually forced to apologise for the “distress and anguish” his comments cause the family.
Her husband reveals that Zaghari-Ratcliffe has fears for her health after lumps had been found in her breasts that required an ultrasound scan, and that she was now “on the verge of a nervous breakdown”.
Hunt meets husband
She is granted a temporary three-day release from prison.
The foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, takes the unusual step of granting her diplomatic protection – a move that raises her case from a consular matter to the level of a dispute between the two states.
The UK upgrades its travel advice to British-Iranian dual nationals, for the first time advising against all travel to Iran. The advice also urges Iranian nationals living in the UK to exercise caution if they decide to travel to Iran.
Hunger strike in London
Richard Ratcliffe joins his wife in a new hunger strike campaign. He fasts outside the Iranian embassy in London as she begins a third hunger strike protest in prison.
Hunger strike ends
Zaghari-Ratcliffe ends her hunger strike by eating some breakfast. Her husband also ends his strike outside the embassy.
Moved to mental health ward
According to her husband, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was moved from Evin prison to the mental ward of Imam Khomeini hospital, where Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have prevented relatives from contacting her.
Daughter returns to London
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s five year old daughter Gabriella, who has lived with her grandparents in Tehran and regularly visited her mother in jail over the last three years, returns to London in order to start school.
Amid the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, she is temporarily released from prison, but will be required to wear an ankle brace and not move more than 300 metres from her parents’ home.
Iranian state media reports that she will appear in court to face new and unspecified charges. In the end, a weekend court appearance on a new charge of waging propaganda against the state that could leave her incarcerated for another 10 years is postponed without warning, leading Zaghari-Ratcliffe to say “People should not underestimate the level of stress. People tell me to calm down. You don’t understand what it is like. Nothing is calm.”
Return to prison threatened
Zaghari-Ratcliffe is told she is to stand trial on fresh charges and will be returning to prison after the hearing.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe is serving home detention after being furloughed from prison in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Her six-year-old daughter, Gabriella, appeared in a 10-minute video released by Amnesty International on 21 December, in which she wrote a Christmas card to Boris Johnson and called for him to bring her mother home.
Titled Two Daughters, the video also featured 34-year-old Elika Ashoori, whose father – retired 66-year-old engineer and dual national Anoosheh Ashoori – has been held in Iran since August 2017.
Tehran has linked both cases to a 40-year-old £400m debt owed by the UK to Iran.
On 3 November, the Foreign Office minister James Cleverly told the Commons the debt was not related to Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s imprisonment, adding that the government was “deeply concerned” about new charges issued against the British national.
The shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, at the time called on the UK government to resolve the issue of the historic debts and called the treatment of Zaghari-Ratcliffe by Iranian officials as “tantamount to mental torture”.
She said: “Resolving this issue, which has dragged on for decades where there is a clear UK legal obligation, where the defence secretary has described the UK’s behaviour as ‘un-British’ and ‘obfuscatory’, holds the prospect of putting our relations with Iran on a better footing.”
Hunt wrote in the Times that sanctions on Iran should not prevent repayment of the debt, which he suggested could be paid in the form of medicines.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s original sentence is due to end on 7 March, but she appeared in court in November on charges of spreading propaganda against the regime.
Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, termed the charges “spurious”, saying the case presented the same evidence used when she was convicted in 2016.
Ratcliffe also said last month’s release of a British-Australian academic by Iranian authorities showed a “light at the end of the tunnel”.