It was after they had decorated the Christmas tree that Gabriella Ratcliffe started crying herself to sleep again. “She has been quite tearful for a few nights now, asking me ‘when is Mummy coming back?’ – which she hadn’t been doing,” said her father Richard Ratcliffe. “It’s all the associations of Christmas and family.”
For the fifth year in a row, his wife Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe will spend Christmas Day – and her birthday, which is on Boxing Day – a prisoner in Iran. Only she isn’t merely a prisoner, Ratcliffe says; she’s a hostage. And it’s vital the government acknowledges that: “There has been a real reluctance on the part of the British government and the wider world to call out Iran’s hostage taking, which has enabled it.”
At least three other British-Iranians have been arrested and arbitrarily detained, and the number has increased in the past few months.
Last week, the parliamentary foreign affairs select committee also called for the government to formally describe the Iranian practice of detaining British-Iranian nationals such as Zaghari-Ratcliffe as state “hostage taking”.
British citizens are being used as “bargaining chips and leverage” in matters of diplomacy, said Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the committee, adding that the government needs to toughen its approach to negotiating their release.
In an exclusive interview with the Observer, Ratcliffe welcomed this suggestion and the acknowledgment that the government’s current approach is not working for Nazanin and other hostages. “You cannot have a functional relationship with another country, if it’s not safe to go and visit granny,” he said, referring to the family holiday his wife was on with Gabriella in April 2016 when she was arrested by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
“I still don’t think the government is being brave enough in making that clear. It is a bravery issue.”
He backed the select committee’s calls for the government to develop new tools for securing the release of detainees and to work with UN allies to develop a new protocol to hold state hostage takers accountable.
In his opinion, the Foreign Office’s priority at the moment is to avoid any action that could lead to negative consequences or “fallout” for the hostages. “But I think inaction can lead to negative consequences.”
He is angry that the British ambassador won’t visit his wife: “I do not see any decent reason why they won’t do it. I can’t see any downside for us.”
She has been living with her parents since March, when she was temporarily released from Evin prison as Covid infections spread, but wears an ankle tag that limits her movements to within 300 metres of their home.
“The most important thing, when there has been hostage taking,” said Ratcliffe, “is getting access to the hostage. You have to break the seclusion. And if you haven’t got access, after negotiating for nearly five years and granting Nazanin diplomatic protection, there’s a huge problem.”
Iran’s position – that Zaghari-Ratcliffe can’t have consular access because she is a dual national, whose British citizenship is not recognised by Iran – is nothing short of a “scam”, and the British government knows it, he says. “It’s a convenient fiction for both governments to pretend it’s true, because neither government wants to acknowledge that they’ve had a five-year standoff over an innocent person, over a government debt. Both sides look bad.”
The UK is thought to owe Iran as much as £400m for 1,500 tanks ordered by the Shah before he was overthrown in 1979 and which were not delivered. Ratcliffe fears his wife – who has three months of her five-year sentence left to serve – will not be freed until that debt is paid. “They have no right to keep her longer, but I think by threatening a second court case, they’re threatening to hold her for as long as they need – and that’s a serious threat. They want their money back.”
That is, ultimately, why his wife is being used as “a pawn”. And that is also why, when six year-old Gabriella – who is currently obsessed with dolls – opens her presents on Christmas morning, her mother will not be there to share the moment with her.
Instead, they will keep in touch via video calls – they normally speak twice a day. “Just before we go to school, we’ll call Nazanin and she’ll watch Gabriella brushing her hair. It’s one of the things she was able to do for Gabriella in the prison visiting room. It’s a real mother-daughter thing for Nazanin.”
His own powerful bond with his daughter – painfully undermined during the three years Gabriella lived in Iran with her grandparents and stopped speaking English – has been a great comfort. “The strength of her cuddles has improved immeasurably over the past year. There’s a tightness to her squeeze now.”
But he confesses that sole-parenting a six-year-old during lockdown, while holding down a job and simultaneously campaigning for his wife’s release, has not been easy. “The way I had coped was by putting things in boxes. All those boxes got washed away, and I was just left with a big mess in my living room.”
He is worried that, no matter what he does, Gabriella will grow up feeling she was abandoned by her parents. “She will sometimes ask: why did Mummy go? Or: Why my mummy?” Once, he says, she was even more blunt and asked: “Why did you marry an Iranian?”
As for Nazanin, all year, she has had to live with the terrifying possibility of being sent back to prison at a moment’s notice. “I use the term mental torture, because that’s what it has been,” said Ratcliffe.” Last month, she was told to pack a bag for prison. Ten men turned up in two vans to take her to court for a fresh trial and started filming her for a propaganda video. “At that point, the government recognised this was a new form of abuse, and condemned it in the strongest terms,” he said.
He thinks that condemnation made all the difference: the court hearing was adjourned, without a clear date for its recommencement, and Nazanin was allowed to return to her parents’ home.
“I am firmly of the view that the more clearly we put down red lines, the better. The British government needs to show, clearly, that they’ve got Nazanin’s back.” He wants the British ambassador to visit her, stand next to her and assert, unambiguously, that she is British. “And that is something the government is still reluctant to do.”