It’s rush hour in London and as the traffic speeds noisily past Kensington Gardens, I’m scrawling Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s name in chalk on the pavement outside the Iranian Embassy. There are 11 of us here tonight – and we’re all on duty. Yellow balloons are attached to a nearby tree with golden ribbons. Candles are lit. Small padlocks are scattered around photographs of Nazanin and her baby daughter, a potent symbol of an innocent mother’s incarceration. “Does it work, this particular vigil?” Nazanin’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, ponders. He shrugs as the Iranian flag ripples in the autumn breeze behind us. “It doesn’t matter. I know it’s what Nazanin wants. She needs to know that I’ve stood by her side.”
Eighteen months ago, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – a British Iranian – was arrested at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport by members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard as she was boarding a flight home to London with her two-year-old daughter. The holiday had been an innocent reunion – Nazanin, travelling on a dual passport, had brought Gabriella to meet her grandparents for the first time. To this day, it’s still unclear as to why she was seized and imprisoned. “Arbitrary politics” is mentioned more than once by Richard. There is no rhyme nor reason as to how a 38-year-old project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation would – or could – pose a threat to the second-largest country in the Middle East. So much of Nazanin’s story reads like nonsense verse. There are very few answers – only heartbreak and loss. It’s now been 544 days since Nazanin was taken – longer still since Richard last saw his wife and child.
In April of this year, Iran’s supreme court upheld Nazanin’s five-year conviction on non-specific charges that relate tenuously to national security. Richard has been campaigning to bring his wife home ever since she was taken to Evin Prison in northwestern Tehran and held in solitary confinement for nine months. At her trial, she wasn’t even allowed to speak. As I write this feature, Nazanin resides in a detention wing that houses countless political prisoners – so many it goes by the nickname “Evin University”. Their passport-less daughter now lives with her maternal grandparents in the same city – symbolically together, yet painfully apart. Richard’s only contact with Gabriella is via Skype as he battles to be granted a visa to make the journey to be reunited with her. No one knows when he’ll get to see his wife again.
Earlier this year it was revealed that UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson has neither met with the Ratcliffes' local MP, Tulip Siddiq, nor any of the Ratcliffe family during Nazanin’s 18-month imprisonment. Is Richard frustrated with the government’s response? Could they be doing more? “I’ve gone through phases. I think they all care personally,” he says. On the other hand, there is mounting exasperation. “They’ve never criticised her treatment; they’ve never acknowledged that she’s innocent. The government’s position will always be that it’s very delicate. I’m not fully persuaded on that. In some ways, it’s very straightforward – she should be protected.”
Richard may have exhausted all legal angles for the time being, but organising intimate vigils – like the one I attend – has a unique purpose. It gives Nazanin hope for the future. Throughout the course of our conversation, Richard talks positively about green shoots and light. In this sense, we’re planting a seed tonight with faith that it will grow. “It’s therapeutic for me,” he admits. “Part of me being here now is so she knows that things are happening.”
When Nazanin was in solitary confinement, Richard was given rare opportunities to speak to his wife and, when he did, there was always an interrogator present. Now she’s been moved to the women’s ward, she gets one 60-minute phonecall a week, which she splits into two 30-minute slots to savour their time together. They talk about the future and they make plans. Richard likes to discuss the holidays they’ll go on when she gets home – and they even debate budgets. Fixed horizons are important – not just behind Elvin’s bars, but in London, too. “That’s where the redemption is,” he says.
In a recent blog post, Richard wrote that, unlike himself, Nazanin looks back a lot. It’s a way for her to keep her brain functioning and happy memories alive. “She plays mental games where she’ll try and remember what’s on the kitchen shelf,” Richard tells me. “Can she remember what’s there?”
Nazanin’s mental health is an ongoing concern. When she was first released from solitary confinement, she was so broken by the experience she lost the will to keep fighting. There have been moments when Richard has been worried about her wellbeing. “She was very sad last autumn,” he says. In January of this year, it was reported that Nazanin had been on hunger strike and was experiencing suicidal thoughts. After a parliamentary debate organised by Tulip Siddiq in July, she was finally granted sessions with a psychiatrist. “Since then, she’s been able to talk things through and she’s calmer,” Richard says.
Nazanin’s mental health is an ongoing concern. When she was first released from solitary confinement, she was so broken by the experience she lost the will to keep fighting
Many of the women have been at Evin Prison for a long time and are good at organising activities to keep their spirits up. “Political prisoners don’t really lie on the mattress feeling sorry for themselves – they keep busy,” Richard says. Nazanin teaches English to the other inmates and she’s currently learning French. They read and discuss books and there are even Zumba classes to attend. “Zumba’s not really allowed in Iran, so part of it is affirming that although they can’t control the outside, they’re still holding on to their dignity,” Richard explains. “She made this,” he says quietly, reaching into his pocket to show me a small woodblock carving. Two figures cradle their child, hands clasping together as the mother’s hair envelops around them like Hokusai waves. “That’s me, that’s her – and that’s Gabriella,” he smiles. Nazanin made it for Father’s Day.
There is pain and laughter tonight. A strange mixture of hopefulness, frustration and love. As we gather around the candles and the sun sets on Nazanin’s 544th day as a prisoner of conscience, an innocent woman shamefully detained against her will, Richard tells me that today’s vigil also marks National Poetry Day. This year’s theme is freedom. We stand in a circle and recite poems composed in the women’s political-prisoner ward at Evin Prison, written in Farsi and translated into English by Nazanin herself.
Not seeing you was enough one reads.
For the world to become a cage
A lovebird alone
Breathless, with a broken heart.
It is for Richard. From Nazanin.
An update to this story:
Boris Johnson has attempted to clarify public remarks he made last week in regards to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's case, in which he wrongly suggested that Nazanin had travelled to Iran in a professional capacity as a journalist. Her family insist she was there on holiday to celebrate Iranian New Year with her family. A statement made by the Free Nazanin Campaign yesterday (November 6) claims that, following Johnson's error, Nazanin now faces a double sentence.
According to the Free Nazanin Campaign, she was taken to Revolutionary Court 15 last weekend, faced with new charges of “propaganda against the regime”. On the morning of November 4, there was no time for breakfast – but the prison guard gave her a piece of walnut. After her appearance at court, she was too upset to eat.
Nazanin's family allege that Johnson's error has been seized upon by the Iranian Judiciary and used to frame Nazanin. “It is of course no coincidence that Nazanin was taken to trial the first working day after the foreign secretary condemned Iran," says Richard Ratcliffe. "For the record, our view is not that he made things worse – just that he made them clearer: Nazanin is being punished to make a point to the British government.”
Johnson said he "could have been clearer" about Nazanin's case. A Foreign Office statement said: "The foreign secretary made clear that the point he had been seeking to make in his evidence to the foreign affairs select committee was that he condemned the Iranian view that training journalists was a crime. Not that he believed Iranian allegations that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been engaged in such activity." The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, has written to Johnson, telling him to resign if Nazanin's prison sentence is increased due to his remarks.
“I appreciate the foreign secretary’s offer to visit Nazanin, and his personal interest in Nazanin’s case," Richard added. "Given all that has now gone on, I ask him to organise his visit to Nazanin as soon as possible, before she is taken for sentencing and trial.”
If you would like to speak up for Nazanin and help get her – and Gabriella – home for Christmas, you can email your local MP via Amnesty International here.