Last week it was reported that British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had finally spoken out on the case of imprisoned Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe but had also made several questionable comments within his public statement. The entire British government had been sharply criticized by Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s advocates for its refusal to make a public appeal for the British national’s release from Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. But upon finally bowing to this public pressure, Johnson made the mistake of mischaracterizing Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s employment at the time of her arrest last year.
The foreign secretary appeared to accept Tehran’s exaggerated narrative about Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s activities and connection to British media, saying that “as he understood it,” she had been employed to train people in journalism. Although Zaghari-Ratcliffe is employed by the Thomson Reuters charitable foundation, this organization is entirely separate from Reuters News. Similarly, she had been previously employed by BBC Media Action, a charitable organization that is separate from the BBC news service and that has no direct relationship to BBC Persian, which is banned in the Islamic Republic and whose reporters and contributors were recently targeted in an investigation by Tehran which saw 152 individuals barred from leaving the country or conducting financial transactions within it.
Both Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s current and former employer have affirmed that she was not employed in a journalistic capacity, but Johnson’s acknowledgment of the Iranian narrative arguably undermines these credible accounts. IranWire quoted the woman’s British husband Richard Ratcliffe as saying that the foreign secretary’s blunder would surely be used against her. The report then added that this already appeared to be happening on November 4, just three days after Johnson’s statement, when Zaghari-Ratcliffe was summoned before Iran’s Revolutionary Court.
Following her arrest last year at the end of a trip to visit her family in Iran, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years in prison on national security charges that have never been specifically delineated for her or her attorney. Her recent summons concerns a new charge of propaganda against the regime that was subsequently added to her file based on the same evidence that was used to convict her in August 2016. If found guilty on the new charges, she could have an additional 16 years added to her sentence.
Her case is being presided over by Judge Abdol-Qassem Salavati, who is notorious for passing harsh sentences in political cases on the basis of little evidence than the hearsay of security forces. During Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s November 4 appearance, Salavati reportedly upbraided the prisoner for refusing to sign the charge sheet that was presented to her in absence of her lawyer. Denial of due process is commonplace in the Iranian judicial system, and defense attorneys themselves are often kept largely in the dark about the content of the cases being built against their clients. In some cases, those attorneys have even gone on to face their own charges on the basis of their defense of such clients.
Although Johnson’s comments could further complicate a case in which the deck is already stacked against the defendant, the IranWire report emphasizes in its headline that Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s ordeal is the responsibility of the Iranian regime and not the British government, either for its recent comments or its previous silence.
Reuters reported on Monday that Johnson had clarified his remarks and emphasized that his reference to Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s supposed teaching of journalism was only intended to demonstrate that even the most extreme description of her former activities does not constitute anything that the international community would recognize as a crime.
However, the mistaken description of the political prisoner’s career was not the only questionable aspect of Johnson’s comments. While appearing to bow to international pressure for government action on Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case, Johnson also seemed to justify the long-term silence by claiming that loud, public campaigns on behalf of such political prisoners can lead to reprisals from the Iranian government. As evidence of this, he pointed to the situation of US nationals arrested in the Islamic Republic. At least five such individuals are in detention today, and some were arrested after wide-ranging publicity was given to previous arrests.
However, it is virtually impossible to determine whether the later arrests would have taken place if advocates for those prisoners had remained silent. And in fact, Iran’s domestic cases of political imprisonment seem to suggest otherwise. The families of arrestees are often told to avoid speaking publicly about such cases and are convinced that doing so would make the situation worse. Yet in many instances, the prisoners remain in detention or even in solitary confinement for weeks or months afterwards, only to face charges that appear every bit as fabricated as those imposed on foreign nationals like Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
In addition, the current group of imprisoned US nationals was preceded by another set of four that was released as part of a prisoner swap in January 2016. While the current US president has criticized this exchange, neither his administration nor Congress appears to doubt the potential effectiveness of diplomatic pressure for the release of other such prisoners. Indeed, the White House previously issued a statement calling for the unconditional release of Siamak Namazi, Baquer Namazi, Karan Vafadari, Xiyue Wang, Nizar Zakka, and any other wrongfully imprisoned US nationals. And as IranWire pointed out on Friday, the US Senate recently passed a unanimous resolution calling for the same.
But IranWire went on to criticize the Trump administration for apparently avoiding any direct communications with Tehran over this situation. By only speaking out publicly, the US government has arguably made itself a mirror image of the British government, which may have had direct communications about the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case while remaining publicly silent. This may indicate that close Western allies are still struggling with how to manage their responses to arrests that are certainly part of a much broader pattern of human rights violations in the Islamic Republic.
The crackdowns on dual nationals and particularly persons with connections to foreign media are closely paralleled by similar crackdowns on minorities and dissenters, who are similarly viewed as threats to the Iranian regime’s hardline Islamist, Persian identity. The crackdown on minorities recently received newfound attention in the midst of a political and legal conflict over the removal of a duly elected councilman for the city of Yazd on the basis of his Zoroastrian religious affiliation.
On Friday, the Center for Human Rights in Iran issued a new report on this case, in which the Guardian Council removed Sepanta Niknam in response to a legal challenge from a Muslim candidate who had failed to win a seat on the council. The Guardian Council is tasked with vetting all legislation and all candidates to high office for compliance with Islamic law, the Iranian constitution, and the will of the Supreme Leader. And the CHRI report indicates that Niknam’s removal seems to represent an expansion in the council’s presumed authority.
The report notes that Sadegh Larijani, the head of the Iranian judiciary sided with the Guardian Council and asserted that the body is free to interpret Islamic law in any way it sees fit. In this case, the council determined that it would be at odds with the principles of the Islamic Republic to continue allowing religious minorities to represent majority Muslim populations, as they had been permitted to do before. If the decision stands, it could strip such minorities of what little political power they already had, thus furthering the expansion of the crackdown on those groups.
Some elements of the Iranian government have publicly voiced their disagreement with Larijani and the Guardian Council, but a previous report indicated last week that the prominent cleric Mohammad Yazdi had used the Niknam case to assert that even verbal criticism of the Guardian Council is a violation of the principles of the Islamic Republic. If the disagreement between the council and members of parliament nevertheless deepens, it could lead to a rare instance of arbitration by the Expediency Discernment Council, which is specifically tasked with providing a final ruling in such cases.
But the more moderate position would surely face an uphill battle, as evidenced by the ongoing crackdown, which persists despite the presence of a supposedly moderate president in Tehran. In campaigning for reelection in May, President Hassan Rouhani revived and expanded upon a number of progressive promises from his first campaign in 2013, but after retaining his office he quickly backed away from these promises and gave the appearance of aligning closely with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Perhaps as a consequence of this alignment, hardline positions appear to be continually reinforced throughout Iranian politics. As an example of this, another CHRI report points to the case of Reza Ekvanyam, a poet and activist who was recently sentenced to three years in prison and 40 lashes on the charge of “insulting the sacred”.
The charge solely relates to the work he has published online and in print, some of which was approved for publication by government censorship authorities before being used as evidence in his trial.
On one hand, this certainly represents the continuing growth of censorship in the country. But on the other hand it can also be regarded as an instance of the kind of entrapment that has also dogged some of the arrested dual nationals. Rouhani has repeatedly said that Iranian expatriates would face no consequences for returning to their homeland, but in reality this has proven untrue. In fact, Nizar Zakka, the US permanent resident, was arrested after visiting the country to give a talk on women and information technology, specifically at the invitation of Iranian government officials.