This week, all my friends from my NCT group have been sharing photos of their children in school uniforms. We all had children in 2016 and our offspring are finally experiencing the delights of the (socially distanced) classroom.
As I excitedly posted a cheesy shot of my daughter with my family, I simultaneously received a text from Richard Ratcliffe - and immediately felt a pang of regret. How many pivotal moments like this has his wife Nazanin missed out on? How many birthdays, school plays, sports days and formative experiences has her young daughter Gabriella had without one parent, or both?
The details of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's ordeal are well-rehearsed - she was arrested in April 2016, as she was returning home to West Hampstead, in my constituency, after a holiday in Iran visiting her parents. She was handed a five-year prison sentence on secret charges and separated from her then-baby daughter. Her husband Richard has relentlessly pursued a campaign to bring her back home and the campaign has generated support from across the world.
This week, she was told that she faces new charges and a new trial on Sunday. Nazanin and her family are understandably devastated, stuck in the centre of a nightmare that is never ending.
On a human level, the case is a tragedy. An innocent mother, forcibly separated from her family and life in London, all while being subject to solitary confinement and successive medical traumas without treatment. It has become a case of global renown, due to both the cruelty of the Iranian regime and the failure of Britain’s diplomatic approach to secure her release.
But on a political level, Nazanin’s case has highlighted the sheer incompetence of the British Government when it comes to engaging with Iran and protecting its citizens. The UK’s Ambassador to Iran told the Zaghari-Ratcliffe family in January this year that the UK had more citizens in this position than any other Western country.
Of course, I recognise that it is not the fault of the British Government that its nationals are being held in arbitrary detention abroad, but I also feel that Ministers should not escape scrutiny and challenge for their clear shortcomings in trying to secure the release of these prisoners – particularly from Iran.
In 2019, a British-Australian former cell mate of Nazanin's was freed after the Australian government negotiated her release. Over the last 12 months, many other countries – including Australia, France, Germany, Canada and the US – have had greater success in securing the fair treatment and release of prisoners held for leverage on false charges.
The high-profile nature of my constituent’s case is no secret. In 2017, the then foreign secretary Boris Johnson made a significant mistake when addressing the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, when he said that Nazanin had been in Iran "simply teaching people journalism as I understand it" (an accusation she has always denied). His comments, which he later accepted were wrong, were highly consequential for Nazanin, with his remarks weaponised in the Iranian state media and cited by the Iranian judiciary as evidence for her crimes. This episode meant that Nazanin’s case was given more attention than any other prisoner.
Why then has the UK Government adopted such a weak approach to her case? By playing softball in its attempts to secure the release of political prisoners such as Nazanin, Britain has wasted any leverage that it may have had over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and has generally looked weak and ineffective. By delaying a resolution to the tanks dispute - over which we owe Iran £400m - we have simply made the case more costly and put further UK nationals in danger.
I’m not naïve, I recognise that the difficult bilateral history between Iran and Britain will always present challenges in negotiations and in trade. However, the UK government’s approach to Nazanin’s case is central to the failure in securing her release.
I have begged the UK government to do more to help Nazanin – but they have failed on so many fronts. They have not visited her either in prison or when she was at her parents’ home under house arrest during the Covid outbreak. They have not had representatives at her trials. Perhaps most importantly, they have failed to pay back the £400m that we owe to Iran, which has left her and other British nationals in harm’s way.
Nazanin’s ordeal coincided almost exactly with the birth of my first child. I’ve often mentioned the surreal moment when I had Richard Ratcliffe and Jeremy Corbyn in my living room while I breastfed my baby with one hand and took notes on the Iranian revolutionary guard with my other hand.
That same baby started school this week, but Nazanin is still in the same situation – separated from her daughter, who is now back in Britain - four years later. And that for me that is the clearest sign of failure on the part of our Government.