It’s been 130 days since I first interviewed Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard, at a protest outside the Iranian embassy in west London; 96 days since he wrote about his wife’s nonsensical imprisonment in Tehran for The Pool; and 684 days since the British-Iranian was seized at a Tehran airport, imprisoned on “non-specific” charges, and separated from her (then) two-year-old daughter.
Today is February 15. It’s a new year. And Richard Ratcliffe is still asking when his wife and daughter will return home.
“It really felt like we’d turned a corner at Christmas,” Richard Ratcliffe tells me, as he stands outside the BBC headquarters in London waiting for yet another interview, on the cusp of yet another publicity drive demanding justice for Nazanin. On December 28, Richard believed his wife’s release was imminent. We all did. After Boris Johnson blundered his way into Nazanin’s desperate case – with clumsy words and arrogant denials of wrongdoing – the foreign secretary did what he should have done two years ago: he flew to Iran to meet with the country’s president. Nazanin, herself, hailed the moment as her “light at the end of the tunnel”. Furlough (temporary release) seemed tantalisingly in view. Hope was restored. “Then the demonstrations happened,” Richard says.
In what would transpire to be the largest public display of civil unrest on the streets since 2009’s Green Movement, anti-government discontent spread beyond Iran’s pavements in January – and unease seeped into its jails. Richard tells me that there are high levels of “fraughtness” in Evin Prison, where Nazanin resides in an all-female detention wing that houses countless political prisoners. Conditions have, Richard informs me, deteriorated since protesting began last year, affecting every aspect of life inside its walls – from phone call restrictions to, most alarmingly, reduced food rations and health-visit cancellations. “Prisoners are getting upset at that,” he says. A couple of them have even been transferred for being troublemakers, he adds. “They’re currently on hunger strike.”
Nazanin isn’t immune to her surroundings. “She’s not in solitary confinement anymore so her conditions aren’t as bad as they were but, without doubt, the consequence of the demonstrations and detentions outside Evin Prison have had an impact,” he tells me. Boris Johnson’s very public “mistake” – the one where he mistakenly stated that Nazanin had been “teaching people journalism” in Tehran – hardly helped her anxieties. “She’s definitely at her wit’s end,” Richard says. Nazanin recently reported that her legs have gone numb again, and that her left hand is in a temporary cast. When the psychiatrist saw her before Christmas he was so concerned about her mental wellbeing that he upped her antidepressants.
Yesterday, Richard’s phone conversation with Nazanin confirmed her growing frustrations. “In terms of her mood she’s very up and down,” he explains. “She can be very angry on the phone sometimes – almost uncontrollable in her frustration. In terms of despair, she was probably at her worst a couple of weeks ago.”
Nazanin recently reported that her legs have gone numb again; and that her left hand is in a temporary cast. When the psychiatrist saw her before Christmas he was so concerned he upped her antidepressants
Nazanin’s latest dip coincided with her daughter, Gabriella (who remains in Iran with her grandparents), catching flu and ending up in hospital on a drip for a few days. “Normal,” Richard calmly recounts to me, “but terrifying if you’re a parent far away.”
In an official statement to the press this week, Richard stated: “I think we have passed the threshold where Nazanin’s treatment is torture.” As a result, he’s now ramping up the pressure after a six-week period of wait-and-see. “I’ve said before that I think her treatment amounts to torture,” Richard tells me. “Now, I’m asking the UN to make their judgement.” This week, he announced he had presented a submission to the UN special rapporteur on torture in order to achieve this verdict. “I’m hoping that they agree and that they follow up with both the UK and Iranian governments,” he says.
Can we talk about Boris, I ask? Did his recent visit – however forced – achieve anything for Nazanin and Gabriella? “I think it was good that he went,” Richard benevolently replies. “There was always a risk that her being so high profile would cause a backlash but it was important for us that the UK government stood up for her so I’m really glad he went.” Richard pauses before he reveals the unavoidable bottom line: “It hasn’t unlocked anything, she’s still behind closed doors.”
As the months have rolled on, it has become increasingly obvious that Nazanin’s case isn’t really about Nazanin at all: she’s simply a bargaining chip in a political battle Richard has continually stated has nothing to do with his family. “Without doubt, political instability in both countries and tense relations between Iran and the UK are part of what’s keeping her there,” Richard says. Put simply: “It shouldn’t be this complicated.”
With talk of UN torture submissions and judiciary hearings, my thoughts turn to Richard; steadfast, despite the destabilising currents that threaten to pull him under – and throw him off course. “It’s been a rollercoaster,” he says. The waiting is hard. “There’s always a danger with a campaign that you think you’re helping when, actually, you’re making it worse.” What keeps him going? Being consistent for Nazanin, thousands of miles away from home.
“Fundamentally, this is a mum who’s done nothing,” Richard tells me. “And whether you want to release her on the fact that she’s done nothing, or whether you want to release her on humanitarian grounds, both are pretty compelling.”
His next question begs repeating. “So, why on earth is she still in prison?”