Richard Ratcliffe: 'Nazanin is a chess piece, who can’t make a move herself'

Richard Ratcliffe has spent the past four years campaigning for his wife's release from prison in Iran. Now, she is being put on trial again

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with daughter Gabriella 
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is now separated from her daughter Gabriella, who returned to the UK last year Credit: Free Nazanin campaign/AFP via Getty Images

At the start of lockdown, Richard Ratcfliffe felt more hopeful than he had in months. After four years in an Iranian jail, on spying charges she vehemently denies, his wife Nazanin had been temporarily released. 

Due to Covid fears, she was moved from Evin prison to her parents’ home in Tehran, and the Iranian authorities were believed to be considering clemency.

But seven months later, Richard’s hope has faded. Instead of letting Nazanin come home to her husband and six-year-old daughter, Gabriella, last week they opened a second case against her on similar charges. It means that, today, the 42-year-old will be put on trial yet again and could return to prison.

“She’s really worried. Just overwhelmed and sad,” explains Richard, 45, from the family’s home in West Hampstead. “The only person she would speak to the day it happened was Gabriella, because she’s just busy being six, talking about her toys and school.”

Gabriella was with Nazanin when she was arrested in 2016, as mother and daughter made their way back to London after a holiday visiting family. 

When Nazanin was sentenced to five years in jail, the toddler stayed with her grandparents in Tehran, her weekly prison visits offering her mum a lifeline. But for three years, she was only about to see her dad via Skype calls.

Richard Ratcliffe has now been reunited with his daughter Gabriella Credit: Clara Molden

Last summer, the couple decided that Gabriella should return to London to start school. “She knows Mummy has had a bad day this week,” says Richard, who worries about the emotional impact on his daughter. “That’s all we told her.”

He has spent the last four years campaigning for his wife’s release, often meeting with the Foreign Office, which last year gave Nazanin diplomatic protection – meaning the UK is now treating her case as a formal dispute between Britain and Iran. 

But even Richard was taken by surprise at the latest development.

“It’s more negative than I was expecting. It’s… bad news,” he says. “All we can do is wait and see what happens in the trial. But,” he sighs, “they always do bad stuff.”

Richard believes that Nazanin is being held as a bargaining chip over the UK’s £400m arms debt to Iran, dating back to 1979. Earlier this month in a letter to Nazanin's lawyers, the defence secretary Ben Wallace acknowledged that he is actively seeking to pay it back. 

“I know the Foreign Office has been engaging seriously with Iran,” accepts Richard. “But the government is failing to protect Nazanin. They need to stand up to them and make Iran take her diplomatic protection seriously, otherwise it has no meaning for anyone else in the future. 

“If your current policy makes it less safe for British citizens, do you have a threshold? What if they take 50 hostages? 100? What’s the limit?”

He has asked the Government to attend the trial to make it clear to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard that they’re keeping an eye on the proceedings, which Nazanin’s lawyers say are illegal under Iranian law. The Foreign Office has called the new charges “indefensible and unacceptable”, stressing that Nazanin should not be returned to prison.

But Richard points out that her current situation is not freedom either. She is confined to her parents house, wearing an ankle tag that does not permit her to move more than 300m, unable to visit a doctor (she has experienced several health problems since her incarceration) and with other family and friends nervous to visit.

“There are ways in which it is better than prison, but mentally it’s much worse,” he says. “At least Nazanin had friends in prison. Now she sits miserable by the window just waiting. She’s a chess piece who can’t make a move herself."

Nazanin is currently at her parents' house, but has an ankle tag which means she cannot move more than 300m Credit: Free Nazanin Campaign/PA

In the last year, they have watched as other dual British citizens have been released from Iranian jails, including Nazanin’s British-Australian former cellmate, Jolie King. Others remain. Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a British-Australian academic and Cambridge graduate is recently thought to have been sentenced to 10 years for ‘espionage’ (undefined spying charges which, like Nazanin’s, are regularly handed down in Iran) and transferred from Evin to Qarchak, a notorious prison in the desert. 

“The lesson I took was not that Nazanin might be sent to Qarchak – though anything is possible – it was that things are getting more desperate,” says Richard. “That hostage suffering will be escalated until it gets attention, and that our own Government’s instinct is still to downplay it.”

One chink of light in Nazanin’s current circumstances has been her ability to spend hours on Skype. “The first few weeks were euphoric,” says Richard. “It coincided with lockdown, so we spoke all the time. For Gabriella, being able to show Mummy her new life in London was a revival of their relationship. 

“Nazanin also got to see all the stuff about her on social media. After four years, she was able to see how much care and love there is for her out there. She could reach out to say hello to old friends and family. You remind yourself the world still has a place for you.”

For the first few months of lockdown – with the demands of his accountancy job, home-schooling Gabriella and a lack of events at which he could rally support – Richard was forced to reduce his public campaigning. Now he has ramped things back up. But his wife, he knows, is on a knife’s edge. 

“Nazanin’s anxiety is there, ready to be triggered at any moment like it was last week,” he explains. “And there’s a gap between how we see things.”

While Richard has chosen full transparency as his campaigning tactic, Nazanin is cautious about what details they reveal, worried it could worsen her situation. “It means sometimes my judgement overrides what she has asked me to do as her husband,” he admits. “There’s a real tension between being a campaigning husband and real husband.

“In the last few months we have been able to be more like a normal long-distance couple, with her making fairly firm suggestions about how I’m looking after Gabriella. But unlike normal couples, we’ve had no contact time for more than four years. No doubt when she comes back, we’ll need to pick up the pieces.”

Richard Ratcliffe has not been able to see his wife, Nazanin, for the past four years Credit: Free Nazanin Campaign/Handout/EPA-EFE/REX

When they decided that Gabriella should come back to London, Richard promised Nazanin that the human impact of a mother being separated from her daughter would move the Iranian authorities to secure her release. They hoped she would be home by Christmas. 

“But it didn't move anyone,” says Richard flatly. “Nazanin was worried it could be a long separation from Gabriella, and she was right.”

There is now no possibility for Gabriella to visit her mother in Iran, as Richard is doubtful they would secure visas and believes it would be too dangerous. “Without a doubt the person Nazanin misses most is Gabriella,” he adds.

For now, the family is just hoping that Nazanin’s trial will end in, if not good news, then at least no more bad news. 

Richard is preparing himself for all outcomes, but his main hopes are pinned on the British embassy attending the trial, or at least sitting outside the courtroom to show that Nazanin’s diplomatic protection still stands. 

But, like his wife, he is acutely aware of just how much time has passed, and how little they can now afford to lose. “If she comes back in 2023, we definitely can’t have another child,” he says. “And for Nazanin, it’s more time away from Gabriella. All she wants is to come back and be a family.’’