Richard Ratcliffe: Nazanin and I will never get those lost years back, but I still have faith my family will return

Richard Ratcliffe with wife Nazanin and their daughter Gabriella aged one
Richard Ratcliffe with wife Nazanin and their daughter Gabriella aged one

After three lonely, gruelling years, Richard Ratcliffe finally received a little good news last week about the plight of his British-Iranian wife, Nazanin. Since her arrest and detainment on spying charges, Richard has campaigned vigorously for her release from jail in Tehran and, last Thursday, the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that he was granting her diplomatic protection – a highly rare move by the Government, and one that elevates Nazanin’s case from a consular matter to a formal legal dispute between this nation, and the one in which she remains prisoner.

“I’m really pleased by this,” says Richard, who has not seen his four-year-old daughter, Gabriella, since waving her and his wife off at the airport in London on 17 March 2016 - a trip that was meant to last two weeks. “It’s something I’ve been asking for for a very long time. It sends out a very clear signal that Nazanin is innocent of all wrong-doing, but also that she’s a British citizen.” Iran does not recognise dual nationality, and thus considers Nazanin Iranian: Hamid Baeidinejad, Iran’s ambassador to the UK, responded to last week’s events by saying that “governments may only exercise such protection for [their] own nationals,” adding that Hunt’s announcement “contravenes international law”. 

This is not the first time in Nazanin’s case that the two countries concerned have failed to see eye to eye. Richard, 44, remains concerned by something Iranian officials told his wife – that her detention is linked to a 40-year-old arms debt of some £450 million that the UK owes Iran – but hopes that, while anticipating that Hunt’s appeal for diplomatic protection will be revoked, this latest move “will prove positive. It brings her closer to being home, but it will be bumpy until the end – and possibly more bumpy now than it might have been before. 

“I don’t think Nazanin will be out immediately, but beyond that it’s hard to say,” he continues. Crucially, however, last week’s announcement provided “uplifting news, and that’s something she’s in need of.”

An opportunity for this family's spirits to be lifted cannot be overstated. I watch as Richard sits on the sofa in his north London living room, singing into the screen of his iPhone and laughing as his little girl, who he has not seen since she was a "chubby little baby," joins in via Skype. “When you come back, we can sing it together,” he tells her from 3,000 miles away. “Would you like that?”

Richard waits patiently as his brother-in-law translates his words into Farsi, and then translates Gabriella’s response back into English for him: “Yes! I want to come back to my own house.” 

Gabriella and Nazanin had been due to visit her parents for the Iranian New Year. On 3 April, Richard received a phone call from his panicked in-laws to say that his wife had been detained as she was about to fly home, and they would take care of their granddaughter while they awaited Nazanin’s release. 

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested in 2016

Back then, Richard thought it was all a terrible mistake. He spent days, then weeks, and then months waiting for the Iranian authorities to realise their error. Yet in the first months of her imprisonment, Nazanin endured ‘intense interrogation’ and bouts of solitary confinement, before Tehran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced her to five years in jail in September 2016.

Her alleged crime is plotting against the Iranian government but no official charges have ever been made public, and her family insist these are ‘utter lies’. Nazanin, who worked as a project manager in the UK for the charity Thomson Reuters Foundation, was just “an innocent mum taking her daughter on holiday.” 

Jeremy Hunt visited Iran in November to plead personally for the release of Nazanin, who turned 40 in prison in December, but thus far to no avail. Richard has been denied a visa to visit, and while Gabriella is free to return to the UK, her parents have decided she should stay living with her grandparents purely so that she can keep seeing her mother on twice-weekly visits. Nazanin, who is detained in Tehran’s Evin prison alongside a number of political prisoners, is so dependent on the 45-minute visits from her daughter that Richard has promised her he won’t take Gabriella back home until Nazanin is freed.

“Those visits are what keeps Nazanin going,” says Richard. "They do arts and crafts, and it gives them those normal mother-and-child moments.” Normal husband-and-wife moments, however, are not on the cards and, as far as their own relationship and bringing up their baby is concerned, “both Nazanin and I know we’ll never get those lost years back.” They speak on the phone three times a week (Skype is not permitted) – conversations that last less than 10 minutes each – and his entire relationship with his daughter now takes place via Skype. 

Richard wants to be reunited with his wife and daughter, now aged four

Gabriella now only speaks Farsi and goes by her Iranian middle name. “Since she’s been speaking Farsi the last couple of years, she’s known herself as Gisou,” Richard explains. “In her nursery she’s Gisou, and then she’s Gisou when she’s with her grandparents. With me, she’s Gabriella, but I’m only a peripheral part of her daily life now.”

One of the only phrases his daughter can speak in English is ‘love you so much,’ and it’s one she shouts excitedly to her father at the end of their regular Skype calls.

“There was a real sadness when I’d speak to her in the first year,” says Richard. “She started to forget the stories I used to read to her in London, and slowly lost her English. That was hard. 

“It’s easier not to let myself feel all of it, or dwell on what I’m missing."

Recently, Gabriella has become more aware of the family's hellish situation. At first, her Iranian grandparents told her that Mummy was at university, but when they heard her tell children in the local park that her ‘Mummy was in prison’ they realised she knew more than they thought. From then, they began to speak openly with Gabriella about her mother’s innocence and unjust detention.

“She’s old enough now to realise that her life is on hold,” says Richard. “She’s happy in Iran and loved. But she wants to come back to London... She also knows Mummy’s desperate to come back, so she wants the same.”

The hardest moment for both mother and daughter took place last August, when Nazanin was released from jail on furlough [legal leave of absence]. The family hoped it was a sign she’d be freed, but at the end of three days sleeping alongside her daughter at her parents’ house, and smiling on Skype at her husband each morning, she was sent back to her cell.

“Nazanin was so distraught, she said she wished she’d never been released," Richard recalls, shaking his head. “It was also really disruptive for Gabriella. When Nazanin was brought back in, she cried every night for her.”

Something that plays regularly on Nazanin’s mind is her chance of becoming a mother for a second time. The couple always wanted two children, and Richard is unashamedly angry when he thinks about the important years they are losing. “They have robbed Nazanin of Gabriella’s growing up, and there’s a danger they’re robbing her of having a second baby. Nazanin’s key aspiration when she comes out will be to have another baby and be a normal family again. That’s absolutely what drives her emotional sense of urgency now,” he says.

Gabriella, too, is excited by the thought of a sibling. She often draws pictures of her with her mummy and daddy reunited – with a little sister because, as she tells her father on Skype, “they’re better because boys are naughty and girls aren’t.”

Richard Ratcliffe (right) with Daniela Tejada, wife of Matthew Hedges who was recently released after being imprisoned in UAE on spying charges Credit: Julian Simmonds

Unsurprisingly, his short conversations with Nazanin aren’t filled with as much laughter. In January, she discovered lumps in her breasts and was denied medical treatment in the prison. In protest, she went on a three-day hunger strike during which she lost 6lb, and her health worsened. She ended the strike when authorities announced she could have medical treatment (Richard says the prognosis is unclear; his wife has previously discovered non-cancerous lumps in her breasts). But Richard says Nazanin frequently has suicidal thoughts. “She’s been in a fragile space since the furlough,” he admits. “That was such a body slam. She is really short of hope and energy now. There’s a nihilistic, nothing left perspective.”

Richard has spent three years campaigning for her release, which he describes as a "full-time activity". He has undertaken it all without professional help, just that of friends and family, and some backing from human rights charities such as Amnesty International. At the same time, he is also holding down his job as an accountant, has fortnightly calls with his British relatives ("eight or nine families all dial in to hear updates") and in any spare time, he turns to old friends.

One of his biggest sources of support is speaking to families who have been, or still are, in similar situations. He was with Daniela Tejada last November when her husband Matthew Hedges was released from jail in the United Arab Emirates after six months. “The fact they had that happy ending gave me hope it’ll happen to us,” he says. “There’s a sense of solidarity.”

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In the year following Nazanin’s arrest, Richard used to go and visit their favourite old haunts such as the National Theatre café, where they had their first date in 2007: “I didn’t want to be in the house because it was too empty, too quiet.” Now, such acts are too painful; he finds solace instead in writing his blog on his Change.org petition to free Nazanin, which has received more than 2m signatures, which he describes as “tremendously therapeutic”.

The house, meanwhile, has remained untouched. “Not in a shrine way,” Richard explains, but rather “that when she comes home, it’s exactly the same... it feels too intimate for me to touch the bedrooms.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve had to pick up toys off the floor,” he adds of Gabriella’s room, which is still as it was when she saw it last. “In some ways, this is more like a bachelor flat now.”

Nazanin is not due for release until September 2021. This June, Gabriella will celebrate her fifth birthday. Early on, they had determined that, no matter what, their daughter would start primary school in London and arrive a few months earlier to get used to being back at home and speaking English, “but as that’s got closer, it feels like a potential vote of no-confidence or abandonment for Nazanin.” They have not discussed what steps to take as “Nazanin’s not in a space where we can talk about it at the moment. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”

It is hard for Richard to know what to say to his wife, to try to make this situation OK. He laughs drily at the thought of being able to cheer her up. “All I can do is remind her that we will be there for her.” Quietly, he repeats himself. “That we will be there for her. There is a level where she just wants to escape and end it all. So I say to her, 'We’re still here, we’re still campaigning. It will work, and we love you. And there is a tomorrow. There is.’”

Read Richard’s petition at change.org/p/free-nazanin- ratcliffe