Who is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and why was she imprisoned in Iran?

Jailed charity worker has always denied the Islamic Republic’s accusation that she was involved in 'plotting to topple the Iranian regime'

Related video: Richard Ratcliffe brings hunger strike for wife Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to an end after 21 days

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British national detained in Iran for almost six years, is finally on her way home after having her passport returned by Tehran officials.

The British-Iranian mother and fellow detainee Anoosheh Ashoori both travelled to the capital’s airport on Wednesday morning, according to their lawyer, ending their nightmare detention in the Middle East.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s local MP Tulip Siddiq had tweeted on Tuesday that she was optimistic the release was imminent but that the detainee was still at her family home in the Iranian capital, where she has been under house arrest since March 2020.

“I am very pleased to say that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been given her British passport back,” the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn wrote. “I will keep posting updates as I get them.”

She followed that on Wednesday with even brighter news: “Nazanin is at the airport in Tehran and on her way home. I came into politics to make a difference, and right now I’m feeling like I have.”

Iran sentenced Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe – a project manager for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the Reuters news agency – to five years in prison in September 2016 after accusing her of “plotting to topple the Iranian regime”, a charge she denies.

Her imprisonment has become a cause celebre ever since, with her husband Richard Ratcliffe tireless in his efforts to lobby the UK government to secure his wife’s release.

Mr Ratcliffe spent 21 days on hunger strike outside of the Foreign Office in London last November to draw attention to her ongoing plight.

While the new development is being cheered at home, Amnesty International UK’s chief executive Sacha Deshmukh has preached caution, responding on behalf of the organisation: “We sincerely hope these reports are correct. The detainees and their families have been suffering for years, and a resolution can’t come quickly enough.

“It’s been clear for a long time that the Iranian authorities have been targeting foreign nationals with spurious national security-related charges to exert diplomatic pressure. In the past we’ve had false dawn after false dawn over possible breakthroughs, so it’s only right to be cautious at the moment.”

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s ordeal began after she visited the country in mid-March 2016 to spend time with family members for Nowruz (New Year), only to be detained on her way home at Imam Khomeini Airport on 3 April.

Her daughter Gabriella, then just 22 months old, was left to the care of her maternal grandparents living in Iran, only returning to the UK to be reunited with her father in October 2019.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was accused by the Iranian authorities of running “a BBC Persian online journalism course which was aimed at recruiting and training people to spread propaganda against Iran”, according to the country’s prosecutor-general, speaking in Tehran in October 2017.

The allegation relates to her previous role working for the BBC World Service Trust, now rechristened BBC Media Action, between February 2009 and October 2010, contributing to a course undertaken by several employees of an Iran technology news website, for which they were subsequently imprisoned.

Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Iranian detainee Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, during his hunger strike in central London last year

The BBC denied the charge and said her imprisonment was based on a false premise anyway, as her role within the organisation had been that of a junior administrative assistant.

The Iranian government has never disclosed the precise nature of the crimes Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe is accused of having committed, although it insists she has been detained on legitimate grounds.

Mr Ratcliffe quickly got to work campaigning on her behalf from Britain, launching an online petition calling on then-prime minister Theresa May and Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei to free her.

“Nazanin is not being held for anything she has personally done. It is deeply misleading by both governments to suggest or even half imply otherwise,” he said at the time. “We demand a clear statement from the foreign secretary to correct his mistake – in parliament and in Tehran at the earliest opportunity.”

What he got instead was a highly unhelpful intervention from then-foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who was was widely criticised for muddying the waters.

“When I look at what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing, she was simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it,” Mr Johnson told a foreign affairs committee on 1 November 2017.

“Neither Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe nor her family has been informed about what crime she has actually committed. And that I find extraordinary, incredible.”

The careless statement that she was “teaching people journalism” reinforced the Islamic Republic’s bogus stance and was roundly criticised by the likes of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and London mayor Sadiq Khan and led to calls for Mr Johnson to resign.

He was indeed replaced as foreign secretary – only to return to lead the Conservative Party and secure a landslide victory in the December 2019 general election – while Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe languished in Evin prison, engaging in two hunger strikes that same year alongside her cellmate in protest at their being denied medical care.

Mr Ratcliffe has alleged that his wife’s freedom hinges on the interest rate accumulated on a £400m loan the UK still owes Tehran over a cancelled deal for 1,500 Chieftain tanks in the 1970s, a debt the current foreign secretary, Liz Truss, said in December is “legitimate” and one Britain intends to pay.

He has also regularly raised concerns about Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s welfare, reguarly expressing fears she could suffer a nervous breakdown and might have been tortured behind bars.

In August 2018, she was indeed taken to a prison clinic after suffering a panic attack just days after being temporarily released to see her family.

She reportedly suffered another in January 2020 in response to the tense situation in Iran following the killing of top general Qassem Soleimani in a US airstrike.

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