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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Iranian state TV seizes on Johnson’s comments about jailed mother as ‘proof’ of British plot

The British foreign secretary has backtracked on his comments about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, amid fears they could leave her facing extra years behind bars

Iranian-British aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Ratcliffe family / Reuters
Iranian-British aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Ratcliffe family / Reuters

Iran state TV has claimed comments by the British foreign secretary were "proof" that a jailed human rights worker had travelled to the country to plot the downfall of the country's regime.

This is despite Boris Johnson backtracking on his remarks last week, in which he erroneously told MPs that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was training journalists instead of visiting family during a two-week trip to Iran that ended in her arrest.

After widespread criticism about the blunder, which could leave the British-Iranian mother facing extra years behind bars in Iran, Mr Johnson issued an apology earlier this week and accepted that he "could have been clearer" in his comments.

But a state TV bulletin aired in Iran on Wednesday night described Mr Johnson’s remarks about Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe as an "unintended confession of the UK government about the real plot” behind her trip to Iran and “proof” of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s case for imprisoning her.

She is currently serving five years in prison for allegedly plotting to topple the regime, accusations denied by UK supporters and officials.

Mr Johnson's comments last week were seized on by Iranian officials for shedding new light on the reasons that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in the country. She was brought before a court on Saturday and told she could face a longer jail sentence for anti-regime propaganda, despite denials from her employer that she was working in the country.

In a statement, Mr Johnson's office said that he called his Iranian counterpart Mohammed Javad Zarif to say that "it was clear, as it always had been, that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been in Iran on holiday when arrested".

“The foreign secretary made clear that the point he had been seeking to make... was that he condemned the Iranian view that training journalists was a crime, not that he believed Iranian allegations that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been engaged in such activity," according to a statement released on his behalf.

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Mr Johnson later told parliament that he would seek to visit her in prison on his visit to Iran. He gave the statement on Tuesday under pressure from Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe's husband Richard who demanded that the foreign secretary say clearly that "she was just there on holiday”.

Iran was accused of taking advantage of Mr Johnson's blunder to potentially extend Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe's detention.

The country has claimed she has been paid by her current and former employers, the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the BBC, to promote opposition to the regime. The foundation – the charitable arm of the news organisation – said it did not operate in the country.

Mr Johnson's intervention is another headache for the government of Theresa May, which is grappling to limit the fallout from allegations of sexual harassment by MPs, the departure of two Cabinet ministers in the space of a week, and the UK's role in tax avoidance detailed by the so-called Paradise Papers.

Campaigners and opposition MPs, including the Labour party's foreign affairs spokesman Emily Thornberry, have called on Mr Johnson to quit over his comments.

Former Tory minister Anna Soubry also criticised Mr Johnson, saying: "His words were wholly inaccurate. If they are continuing to damage this woman's well-being and putting her in more peril of continuing unlawful incarceration, then the foreign secretary must step down and he must go immediately."

In a statement on Thursday, the Free Nazanin Campaign confirmed that Iranian state TV had run the feature on Zaghari-Ratcliffe, "using the foreign secretary’s words last week to discredit Nazanin and negate the efforts to release her".

It added: "Assurances given this week do not look sufficient. The UK government should not be in denial about the gravity of the situation or the abuse Nazanin is suffering at the hands of the Iranian authorities. The government’s first duty – both governments’ first duty – is to protect its citizens."

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested in April 2016 at Tehran airport as she prepared to return to the UK with her two-year-old daughter Gabriella after visiting her parents, her employer said.

She is being held in the country’s notorious Evin prison, and is widely seen as a bargaining chip in a diplomatic battle between London and Tehran.

Her husband has expressed concern about his wife appearing on state TV, and on the front page of a number of Iranian newspapers.

Mr Ratcliffe told The National that he has not seen his family, other than through Skype calls with his daughter - who remains in Iran with his in-laws - since his wife was arrested and detained. He added that Iran had reneged on a promise to allow him to visit his jailed wife, despite him travelling to New York in September and hand-delivering a letter to Mr Zarif who was attending the United Nations General Assembly.

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe is one of several dual nationals held in Iran on espionage charges. Dual nationals are not recognised by Iran, do not receive consular assistance and often face secret charges in closed-door hearings.

A UN panel of experts said the practice was part of an emerging pattern since the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

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