Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 October 2019

Boris Johnson faces immediate pressure over securing release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Family and MPs urge the UK’s new prime minister to focus on detained dual nationals

British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with her husband Richard Ratcliffe and their daughter Gabriella before her detention in April 2016. EPA
British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with her husband Richard Ratcliffe and their daughter Gabriella before her detention in April 2016. EPA

Boris Johnson has come under immediate pressure to use his first days in office to work for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe as he faces an early test of his leadership credentials over the tanker crisis with Iran.

The husband of the detained charity worker was writing to the new prime minister on Wednesday seeking a first face-to-face meeting since Mr Johnson raised her case during a visit to Tehran in December 2017 - but returned empty-handed.

Richard Ratcliffe said he wanted a meeting within 30 days of Mr Johnson securing the keys to 10 Downing Street as the relationship with Iran worsens following the seizure of UK-flagged tanker Stena Impero by Tehran last week.

Mr Johnson, who was officially appointed premier by Queen Elizabeth II on Wednesday, also faces demands from 231 MPs to fight for the release of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other lower-profile British dual nationals held in Iran.

“We believe that it should be a Prime Minister’s first duty to protect British citizens, including those who are unfairly held overseas,” according to a letter released on Tuesday.

The family of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe strongly criticised Mr Johnson after he suggested in a parliamentary hearing in November 2017 that she was in Iran training journalists when she was detained more than three years ago.

Hannah Bardell, a Scottish nationalist MP who signed the letter, said that Mr Johnson had a responsibility to help the family given his diplomatic gaffe.

“He clearly hadn’t read his brief,” said Ms Bardell. “He made a sensitive situation even worse. It’s difficult to understand how we are still in this situation after such a long period of time.

“He should be doing everything in his power to get Nazanin home.”

The Iranian media seized on his statement as evidence to suggest that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe – a dual national who was visiting her family with her young daughter – was involved in efforts to undermine the clerical regime. Her family said the comments by Mr Johnson, who later apologised, contributed to her continuing plight.

A month after his comments, Mr Johnson – then foreign secretary - travelled to Tehran where he met President Hassan Rouhani and discussed the cases of detained dual nationals, but secured no public concession from Tehran.

During the campaign for the leadership, the new prime minister spoke of his “deep anguish” at his comments but said responsibility for the 40-year-old mother’s continued detention lay with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Despite a brief period of temporary freedom from prison last year, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe has continued serving her five-year jail term despite worsening medical problems and without any prospect of an early release. Last week, she spent six days in solitary confinement on a psychiatric wing at a Tehran hospital where she was handcuffed to her bed.

Mr Ratcliffe is due to meet foreign office officials on Friday to discuss the implications of the new Johnson government, increased tensions in the Gulf and developments in his wife’s case.

Tensions between the UK and Iran have risen following the decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw from the deal that lifted sanctions on Iran in return for guarantees preventing the development of nuclear weapons.

The MPs wrote to Mr Johnson and his rival for the leadership Jeremy Hunt, on Tuesday and urged them to work for the release of British detainees in Iran.

“We appreciate that your ‘to-do’ list is significant, but we want to take this opportunity to write regarding Iran's unfair imprisonment of British nationals and residents used for diplomatic leverage," they said.

“We have very strong humanitarian and health concerns about the continued unlawful imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and several other individuals.”

Mr Hunt – who repeatedly raised the case of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and met her daughter in Iran – resigned as foreign secretary on Wednesday in the midst of a worsening stand-off with Iran over captured tankers. Mr Hunt won around a third of votes cast in a ballot of Conservative Party members, but refused to become defence minister, a demotion from his post as foreign secretary.

Mr Johnson did not mention foreign policy outside of Brexit during his first speech as prime minister outside of Downing Street on Wednesday.

Mr Ratcliffe has been the most outspoken campaigner among families of dual nationals detained in Iran, who include French, American and Canadian dual nationals. He has been refused a visa to visit his wife and daughter in Iran and joined his wife on a hunger strike last month on the pavement outside the Iranian embassy in London.

Updated: July 24, 2019 09:18 PM

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