Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe freed but may face new charges

By Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been released from house arrest in Iran on the completion of her five-year sentence, but the British-Iranian dual national will have to go to court to face a second set of charges on 14 March, according to her lawyer.

The new charges, long threatened by the Iranians, include involvement in propaganda activity against the Islamic Republic including by attending a demonstration outside the Iranian embassy in London in 2009 and speaking to BBC Persian.

In practice, the news means she has been released from the ankle tag that kept her within 300 metres of her parents’ home. But since she is facing the new set of charges next Sunday she is unlikely to be given back her passport, which she would need to return to the UK.

'More sleepless nights ahead', says Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's relative – video

“I think they have just closed the legal anomaly,” said her husband, Richard Ratcliffe. “So the ankle tag is taken off to close down the first case and avert formal steps from the UK, but she is in court again next week for the new one. So she remains leverage for them.”

He added: “She is determined to enjoy her afternoon today and only worry about what next week will bring later.”

He said she had been able to “visit her granny today, and is hoping to visit the family of one of her cellmates, and wife of one of the other British prisoners”.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s lawyer, Hojjat Kermani, told the Iranian website Emtedad on Sunday that her five-year prison sentence for plotting to overthrow the clerical establishment was complete.

“She was pardoned by Iran’s supreme leader last year, but spent the last year of her term under house arrest with electronic shackles tied to her feet. Now they’re cast off,” Kermani told the website. “She has been freed.”

Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, said he pledged to do all he could to secure Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s permanent release.

“Pleased to see the removal of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s ankle tag, but her continued confinement remains totally unacceptable,” Johnson said on Twitter. “She must be released permanently so she can return to her family in the UK, and we continue to do all we can to achieve this.”

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband has criticised Johnson for his role in the case. He wrongly told a House of Commons committee when he was foreign secretary that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “teaching people journalism” in Iran. Iranian officials cited Johnson’s words as evidence that she had engaged in “propaganda against the regime”.

The British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said: “She must be allowed to return to the UK as soon as possible to be reunited with her family.”

He added: “We will continue to do all we can to achieve this. We have relayed to the Iranian authorities in the strongest possible terms that her continued confinement is unacceptable.”

His predecessor Jeremy Hunt said it was “beyond cruel to toy with an innocent mother and six-year-old child in this way”, adding that Iran’s “hostage diplomacy must stop”.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released from jail last March but ordered to remain with the ankle tag at her parents’ home in Tehran.

Her husband had said her continued detention would have been illegal under Iranian law since she had completed her sentence and not been charged with any new offence. He said Iranian officials had accepted that her sentence, including nearly nine months in a windowless solitary confinement, was complete.

The Iranians first threatened to press a second set of charges against Zaghari-Ratcliffe in October 2017, and again last September, but pulled back in the face of diplomatic outrage. The fresh charges relating to spreading propaganda against the regime contain no evidence unavailable at her first trial in 2016.

Ratcliffe said his wife “had been counting down to this date for 18 months”, crossing the days off as with an Advent calendar. “There is something deeply unsettling about going through that threshold, because if this can happen, anything could.” He said it had been painful to tell his six-year-old daughter Gabriella he did not know if her mother was coming home this weekend.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested at Tehran airport on 2 April 2016 on national security grounds, and since her arrest has twice gone on hunger strike in protest at her conditions. She has been denied consular access since Iran does not recognise her dual citizenship status.

During her interrogation she claims the Iranians tried to persuade her to become a spy, told her that her husband had left her, and threatened to send her daughter back to London. Gabriella has now started schooling in the UK, and speaks to her mother by Skype.

Nazanin and her husband have long contended she is being held as a bargaining chip to secure the release of more than £400m debt that the UK acknowledges it owes to Iran dating to back to a 1970s arms deal. The UK says it cannot pay due to sanctions against Iran. Critics say the UK has set out no public strategy to pay the debt, possibly through humanitarian payments, and instead conducted a decades-long legal battle, that it ultimately lost, not to pay the debt.

The next round of the case is due in court on April 2022 but there have been successive postponements of the case, most recently in November.

Although the Iranian foreign ministry is not the ultimate arbitrator of her fate, the wider diplomatic backdrop has been seen as critical to her release. Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, was in Tehran on Sunday to discuss the stalled talks on the Iran nuclear deal. Ireland was a UN security council sponsor of the motion endorsing the 2015 nuclear deal from which the US unilaterally withdrew in 2018.

Diplomatic sparring between the Biden administration and Iran has intensified over the terms for reopening talks on the nuclear deal, with Iran demanding all US sanctions imposed by the Trump administration be lifted first, and the US insisting informal talks are first held on how Iran will also come back into compliance with the deal. Iran has been steadily reducing UN nuclear inspectors’ access to its nuclear sites, and increasing stockpiles of enriched uranium above limits set in the deal.

Iranian diplomats feel they scored a victory last week when the E3 – the UK, France and Germany – withdrew a motion at the International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors meeting in Vienna censuring Iran for its failure to comply with the 2015 deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The UK was seen by Iran as one of the ringleaders of the censure motion, a hostile act.

The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, criticised Europe’s “inactivity on JCPOA commitments” and added that Iran was committed to “preserving the JCPOA and is the only party that has paid a price for it”.

“But this situation cannot continue as it is,” Rouhani stressed.

Preserving and reviving the deal required all sides to act on their commitments, he said.

Iran claims the US is close to relaxing restrictions on Iran accessing its funds in overseas accounts at least for humanitarian purposes, notably in South Korea and Iraq. That might set a precedent that makes it easier for the UK to pay its historical debt without crushing US sanctions. The UK has provided little evidence to Ratcliffe, he says, that it has thought imaginatively about how to pay the debt or whether it pressed the US to give the UK permission to do so. The foreign office would not wish to be seen to be succumbing to ransom demand.