Trapped in Iran: 275 days and counting

Anne Blanken, our Women’s Editor, launches our ‘2016: A Year in Reflection’ series as she recounts one of the most outrageous detentions of 2016…

Nazinin and her husband Richard. (Image: uncredited)
Nazinin and her husband Richard.
(Image: uncredited)

British-Iranian mother Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe has fallen victim to an intricate and extended political ploy that has seen her human rights tested, abused, and disrespected. On April 3rd she was arbitrarily detained by the Revolutionary Guard in Tehran while intending to return to the UK after a family visit to Iran with her 22-month-old daughter, Gabriella Ratcliffe. She would proceed to spend over five weeks in solitary confinement in a detention facility in the city of Kerman, one thousand kilometres from her family in Tehran, without any official charges or indication of her location. May 11th marked the first time she was permitted to see her family in a highly controlled and supervised visit – the conditions of her detention evidently fraught with such hardship that she was rendered too weak to stand, let alone carry her infant daughter in her arms.


A violation of human rights

Article 14(3) of the International Covenant Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is an adherent, stipulates the essential right for a detainee to “have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defence and to communicate with counsel of his own choosing”. Withholding this right thus means that the Kerman captors have landed themselves in the dark waters of the UN criteria for torture, and equally are in violation of internationally acceptable standards of detention. Nevertheless, recent amendments to Article 48 of the 2014 Code of Criminal Procedure justify Nazanin’s detention insofar as Iran is concerned. This Code does not extend the right to access a lawyer of the defendant’s own choosing to prisoners accused of issues of “national security”. Critics from the Human Rights Watch note that this term, as has been so liberally applied to Iranian nationals with dual citizenship, risks the undermining of “safeguards against abuses in detention.”


How is this political?

Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin’s husband, alleges that his family is being held as “collateral” due to an extensive 40-year refusal of the UK to repay a 500 million pound debt owed to Iran. The transaction that saw Chieftain tanks being purchased, but not delivered, was made by the MoD using a state-owned private company, International Military Services Ltd. that has since ceased trading. Headway was made when the government of Iran took the Company to the International Court of Arbitration, and won. This sum is yet to be paid – a technicality attributed to the “sanctions imposed on Iran”.  The legitimacy of this sophistry? Questionable, given that only certain sectors of the government of Iran are subject to these sanctions.  The Annual Report and Financial Statements made available by IMS Ltd. specifies two rounds of negotiations – in March and May of 2016. These dates conveniently converge around notable changes in Nazanin’s case. The first being her initial detention in the early days of April, and the latter coinciding with an event in the beginning of June, when she was told that she would be held as a “bargaining chip”. The country has a long history in subjugating dual nationals to act as a form of barter to gain a political advantage. In June, Canadian-Iranian sociocultural anthropologist Homa Hoofdar was detained and held at Evin Prison, Tehran for 112 days before intervention by Canada with the help of Oman, Italy and Switzerland. Hadi Ghaemi, a New York-based human rights activist, noted that “[The arrest] reflects a security and intelligence apparatus out of control in Iran. They are snatching and detaining people without cause and with total impunity, creating a virtual quarantine of Iranian society so that they may more firmly hold it in their grip.”


Who are they? And why do they seek to ‘quarantine Iranian society’?

A general view of a courtroom shows suspected opposition supporters (in grey) attending the latest session in their trial at the revolutionary court in Tehran on August 25, 2009. Several aides to former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami and top reformists were put on trial on charges of masterminding the post-election unrest which rocked the Islamic republic. Among the some 20 people in the dock were a former minister and a number of other top political figures as well as journalists and academics. Portraits on the wall show the Islamic republic's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) and his predecessor, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. AFP PHOTO/FARS NEWS/HASSAN GHAEDI (Photo credit should read Hassan Ghaedi/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian Revolutionary court(Photo credit: Hassan Ghaedi/AFP/Getty Images)



To answer this question, analysis must extend backwards.   In February, Canada announced it would follow the US and the EU to lift sanctions against Iran. Earlier that month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed a willingness to restore diplomatic relations with Iran, 4 years after closing its embassy’s doors in Tehran. The recent race to reestablish political and economic ties with Iran reflects a change in leadership in the country – the moderate President Rouhani seeks a degree of social and political liberalization and sees the West as instrumental in its economic restoration. The private economy saw a boost with the recent sanction alleviations and foreign investment. However, the conservative Revolutionary Guards oppose the West and see no “need for foreign engineering”, emphasizing social security and conservatism instead. Efforts to quarantine society are thus instigated by the Revolutionary Guards to “undermine the opening of the country which is Rouhani’s stated policy.”  The extensive list of dual nationals that have been held in Iranian prisons under espionage charges include: Americans: Siamak Namazi (and his elderly father Baquer), Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, and Jason Rezaian; Europeans: Nazak Afshar and Sabri Hassanpour; and Brit: Kamal Foroughi. Evidence that indisputably concludes that these dual nationals are not prisoners, rather they, and Nazanin, are being held hostage.


It remains unclear why the UK government is refusing to pay its debts. What is clear, however, is that the Revolutionary Guards are becoming increasingly impatient. There is a similar sense of urgency concerning the emotional and physical welfare of Nazanin. On October 23rd, she admitted to her husband that she had written him a goodbye letter. In addition to suicide fears, she is suffering from heart palpitations, blurred vision, and pain in her hand, arms, and shoulders. The Revolutionary Guards are loud in the silence of their interrogators, be it only due to their actions. The silence of the British Foreign Office though, is unsettlingly eerie. Why have they not publicly defended Nazanin and her daughter? Hitherto the 2011 negotiations between Iran and the UK, arbitrary detention received wide public dissent. When Iran arrested UK embassy staff in 2009, the Foreign Secretary David Miliband insisted that “The detention of embassy staff was completely unjustified” and was “confident that none of them were involved in any improper behaviour.” Such claims to dispel doubt that a charity worker for the Thomson Reuters Foundation – a foundation that is not involved in Iran – and mother of a 22-month-old could be in any way involved in ‘improper behaviour’ have not been made for Nazanin. As the UK immerses itself in a “once in a generation investment opportunity”, the rights and liberties of its nationals are discretely ignored. In stark contrast to this is the UN, which has issued several statements, and has labelled Nazanin’s case a “mockery of justice”. As we enter a new year, the score of 2016 remains: 5 releases for the US, 2 for Canada, and 0 for the UK.

What is happening now?

The Revolutionary Court has sentenced Nazanin to 5 years imprisonment following a secret trial heard by the notorious Judge Salavati – who has a remarkably bad track record where human rights are concerned. Nazanin is being held in Evin Prison by the Revolutionary Guard, and has recently been transferred to general cells. Gabriella calls out for the mother in the night, and is greeted only by her absence. Iran is projected to end 2016 at a 4.8 percent GDP growth, with its environment for foreign direct investment particularly alluring. The debt has not been paid. The UK government remains silent.

What can you do?

Amnesty International does not believe Nazanin received a fair trial. Send an appeal letter or write a solidarity card:

Stay informed and sign the petition

Let them know we are watching,

Let them know we will not tolerant blatant disregards of human rights.


Nazanin, smiling in isolation (Photo credit:


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