On Tuesday, CNN published a profile of Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of a dual national who has been imprisoned in Iran for the past 19 months on fabricated charges of spying. The article suggested that Ratcliffe’s campaign for his wife’s freedom may have hit a milestone in recent days, following the international attention that has emerged from a clumsily worded statement by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, which was also the first public statement the British government had made about the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
The CNN article traced through much of Ratcliffe’s experience of being separated from his Iranian-born wife and daughter. The child, Gabriella, is now three years old and remains in Iran in the care of her grandparents, whom she and her mother were visiting on vacation prior to Nazanin’s arrest in April. Gabriella’s British passport was confiscated at that time, preventing her from returning to her father, who has been able to communicate with her only via Skype while watching as she lost much of her grasp on the English language. Nazanin reportedly receives visits from her daughter approximately twice a week, and generally speaks to her husband by phone once.
According to the CNN profile, Richard Ratcliffe initially remained silent over his wife’s situation, as do the families of many Iranian political prisoners, in the midst of secrecy and obfuscation by the Iranian regime. But he went public after speaking to human rights organizations and recognizing that Nazanin’s case fit an established pattern of persecution and unsubstantiated accusations against dual nationals, activists, and others.
On Monday, the Center for Human Rights in Iran published an article indicating that at least 30 dual nationals had been arrested in Iran since the signing of the nuclear agreement between it and six world powers in 2015. The article also provided brief descriptions of the most prominent of these cases, which include three American citizens and one permanent resident who have each been sentenced to 10 years on vaguely described and unsubstantiated charges of spying like those levied against Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
When, after a few weeks, her husband petitioned for her release the document quickly gained half a million signatures and presumably exerted pressure on the British government, though it remained silent in public, preferring to work behind closed doors to make use of the newly restored diplomatic relations between London and Tehran.
Whether because of a lack of progress in back-channel discussions or because of the continued escalation in pressure from the British public and the international community, the UK’s Foreign Office spoke up at the beginning of November in what was supposed to be a routine hearing. But Johnson attracted unwanted attention from Ratcliffe and from Nazanin’s other supporters when he mistakenly contradicted the position of the family, Nazanin’s employers at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, and the British government itself.
“When I look at what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing, she was simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it,” the Foreign Secretary said, effectively parroting the accusations lodged against her by Iranian authorities, who exert tight controls over the media and who recently imposed an illegal ban on financial transactions for 152 current and former contributors to the BBC’s Persian service. Days after Johnson’s statement, Nazanin was summoned for an unscheduled hearing as Iran’s revolutionary court was weighing new charges against her that could add a further 16 years to her existing five year sentence.
The confluence of these events led many observers to conclude that Johnson’s blunder was being used by the court as evidence that Nazanin was guilty of “propaganda against the regime.” In fact, contrary to the prosecutors’ narrative, Nazanin has never worked in a journalistic capacity, though she has been employed by the separate, charitable arms of the BBC and Thomson Reuters. The latter, her current employer, does not carry out programs in Iran, and this cuts against Tehran’s insistence that the woman was in the country in a professional capacity.
As is familiar to cases of imprisonment in Iran, especially involving political charges, the condition of the accused has deteriorated considerably since her arrest. And Johnson’s ill-advised commentary contributed further to this trend, according to Mr. Ratcliffe. Business Insider conveyed his concerns in an article published on Monday, noting that phone conversations with Nazanin suggested that she was “on the verge of a nervous breakdown.”
But the peril of her condition may not only be psychological. The Iranian prison system is notorious for withholding medical treatment for prisoners, especially those in political wards. This trend gained considerable international attention following the September release of photographs of the journalist Alireza Rajaei, who had an eye and part of his jaw surgically removed as a result of cancer that had gone undiagnosed for as much as four years while he was serving a sentence as a political prisoner.
Rajaei’s case served as the introduction to a new report on Friday, which catalogued a number of incidences of medical neglect in political wards. The article noted that deaths from such medical neglect have continued unabated under the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, who won his first election in 2013 after a campaign that promised domestic reforms and specifically called attention to the need for prisoners to receive the rights of citizens, including rights to “suitable nutrition, clothes, health and medical care.” The ongoing campaign against political prisoners highlights the fact that Rouhani’s promises of reform have not been realized.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran also called attention to the trend of withholding medical care and to the broader phenomenon of “inhuman pressure on political prisoners and labor activists.” The article called particular attention to the case of Mahmoud Salehi, a labor activist who became a new focal point of prisoners’ rights activism several weeks after Rajaei filled that role.
At the beginning of November it was reported that security agents had interrupted Salehi’s dialysis treatment in order to take him to begin serving a one year sentence. As with Rajaei’s loss of his eye, Salehi lost both kidneys after prison authorities defied medical advice that the prisoner be transferred to a hospital to receive specialized treatment for a worsening ailment. As the NCRI pointed out, Salehi spoke out about his mistreatment after he was eventually granted medical leave. It is perhaps because of his refusal to remain silent that he is facing additional pressure today. Aside from returning him to prison, authorities have reportedly confiscated his medicine, thereby leaving his health to deteriorate as a result of diabetes, heart and kidney ailments.
The relevance of these and other instances of medical neglect to the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was made clear by some of the reporting that followed Johnson’s comments. The Financial Times reports that the Iranian-British dual national recently discovered lumps in her breasts, but only after months of stabbing pains in the same area. The same report indicates that she has finally been transferred to a hospital outside the prison, although her previous complaints had been blithely ignored.
Although such details underscore the seriousness of her case and the potential consequences of Johnson’s blunder, CNN characterized the recent developments as milestone because the public response had raised Nazanin’s profile and led to more direct communication between Richard Ratcliffe and the British government. The Guardian reported that Ratcliffe had asked the Foreign Office to remind all government officials of the relevant facts surrounding his wife’s case and had also asked that Johnson accompany him when he travels to Iran to visit with her.
Since his misstatement, Johnson has spoken to Nazanin by phone and has reportedly promised to visit her by the end of the year. CNN indicates that it is likely he will indeed do so in the company of the prisoner’s husband. The Guardian also reported that in a Downing Street briefing, the Foreign Office had indicated it was considering giving diplomatic protection to Nazanin as a way to help secure her release/
In the meantime, however, the controversy over the Foreign Secretary’s mistake is contributing to political discord and amplifying criticisms by the opposition Labour Party. While Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called for Johnson’s resignation, Environment Secretary Michael Gove seemed to make the situation worse while trying to defend Johnson, saying in an interview that he didn’t know why Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe had traveled to Iran. The Labour Party accused Gove of compounding Johnson’s “cavalier approach” to foreign policy. But Gove also used the interview to insist of Nazanin “that there is no reason why she should be in prison in Iran.”
“We make a big mistake,” Gove added, “if we think the right thing to do is to blame politicians in a democracy who are trying to do the right thing for the plight of a woman who is being imprisoned by a regime that is a serial abuser of human rights.”