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My wife’s Iran prison hunger strike is an act of despair, not defiance

Nazanin has been refused medical treatment. This is a last resort. And it should prompt international action

Richard Ratcliffe
Wednesday 16 January 2019 00:29 GMT
'We're in a scary place' Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's husband describes his wife's condition as her hunger strike begins

How does it feel when your wife is on hunger strike? It is fine to support their right to do it in theory. It feels different as the days roll on.

Nazanin and I had a long autumn. She regularly despaired that nothing was moving, warned that she couldn’t cope anymore stuck in an unjust imprisonment while governments haggled. She threatened a hunger strike as a last resort. I kept getting her to postpone, saying that we weren’t at last resort yet. That got us past Christmas and even her 1,000 days.

But this week that moment came. Triggered by fear over a refusal of medical treatment, a moment that filled her with terror, she decided enough was enough. With a fellow prisoner, Narges Mohammadi, she decided to refuse food – until they got a firm promise of medical treatment.

I haven’t been able to speak to her since. I wait to see the prison’s response. Will Nazanin be allowed to see a doctor for the lumps in her breasts, and other strange numbness and pains? Will the strike be extended beyond its original few days? How fragile will she need to get?

Nazanin had been really stressed and panicky the week before the strike – worried by how the authorities would respond, worried by so many things. Solitary does that to a person. Arbitrary detention, empty promises, lies outside; they all reinforce those feelings.

She has reached the point where she doesn’t believe she can have a life outside of jail, that her life has been taken away: her daughter, her husband, even the powerlessness of basic physical symptoms being ignored. It does not feel a strike of defiance, but of despair, that no one can do anything.

Our daughter Gabriella was 22 months old when Nazanin was taken from her. She is brought up by her grandparents. These days she sees Nazanin on prison visits. But she was not taken last week because of what was impending. She may not have the words, but she can feel a situation, gets agitated and difficult when she feels her mother or grandmother upset. On Monday she was manic, refusing to eat or sleep in her own kind of protest.

Nazanin is stuck – in the games of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Last week a long documentary was shown on Nazanin, attempting to depict her (and me) as a key spy for the UK. The centerpiece was secret footage of her being arrested on holiday at the airport, looking terrified, her baby daughter out of shot just taken away.

The previous week she was told by Revolutionary Guard interrogators that they would let her go if she agreed to spy on the UK. It would be safer for her and her family. It is a standard play for the Iranian security services, many dual national prisoners are pressured that way, cameras rolling in secret. But it was terrifying for Nazanin. And two days later she had announced her hunger strike.

In response, Jeremy Hunt summoned the Iranian Ambassador, Hamid Baeidinejad, on Monday to say that promises of healthcare should be kept.

The immediate response was not hopeful. Hours after this summons ambassador Baeidinejad tweeted, first to say that the UK should not interfere in Iran’s internal affairs, and then to say that she was a convicted spy.

He knows this isn’t true because I wrote to him two weeks ago to point it out. The Revolutionary Court convicted Nazanin (at a secret trial where she was not allowed to speak) of membership in enemy organisations – meaning her association with her current and former employers in London, Thomson Reuters Foundation and BBC Media Action. Even in Iran that is not the same as spying, despite all the repetition of the big lie.

Yet on Tuesday, even the Head of the Iranian Army, Mohammad Bagheri, claimed Nazanin was arrested because she was in Iran for the purposes of espionage.

As I wrote two weeks ago: the fact remains this is all nonsense. It is nonsense built on a mum with a baby on holiday – now brought to a hunger strike. They are fighting windmills here.

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Revolutionary Guard games harm more than just our family. Cases like Nazanin’s in Iran are not random and isolated consular cases. There are many westerners being held in Iranian prisons as leverage. It has become a systematic practice. This industry needs to be stopped.

I suggested to the foreign secretary when I met him on Monday that this should be an international problem, raised at the United Nations this year. It needs a coordinated effort to ensure that those involved recognise it: this practice is bad for Iran, as well as for those outside.

For now, we look to the prison itself, and hope the Iranian authorities will allow Nazanin the treatment she needs before days become weeks. It shouldn’t be that an innocent person has to go on hunger strike to be heard.

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