‘I can’t help but feel there’s more to this’ – Tulip Siddiq MP demands answers from ministers over jailed British-Iranian, Nazanin Ratcliffe
Tulip Siddiq will today raise the case of her constituent, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, during a Westminster Hall debate on British prisoners in Iran. She talks to PoliticsHome about what she hopes to achieve.
Richard Ratcliffe did not know where to turn. His wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national, was arrested on 3 April 2016 at Imam Khomeini airport while preparing to travel home to Britain on unspecific charges. She was separated from their 22-month-old daughter, Gabriella, who was preparing to board the plane alongside her. Eight weeks hence, Richard had been advised by the Foreign Office to not go public. But with his wife in prison awaiting sentencing, and his daughter now at home with her grandmother, still in Iran, he decided he needed to speak out.
Tulip Siddiq, Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, took an urgent call as she got home from hospital, after giving birth to her first child. It was Richard Radcliffe, one of her constituents, who explained the situation. Disturbed, she then spoke to Jeremy Corbyn.
“I rang Jeremy and I said ‘Jeremy, we’ve got to do something about this’. And Jeremy said ‘what about tomorrow? I’ll pop by the flat’,” she explains.
“So, Jeremy, Richard and I – surreal – have a meeting while I’m breast feeding the baby, and Jeremy was very sympathetic.”
Today, Siddiq has a Westminster Hall debate on British prisoners in Iran. It has taken one year and three months of lodging requests for Siddiq to be granted the parliamentary time she desires to discuss Nazanin Ratcliffe’s case. Last September, Ratcliffe, a worker with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was sentenced to five years in prison on spurious claims of seeking to overthrow and spying against the Iranian state. Her conviction was upheld in the appeals court earlier this year. Iran does not recognise dual citizenship, meaning Ratcliffe has been left without consular access. Many other dual nationals of American, Canadian and French descent are facing similar allegations.
The 38-year-old spent a period in solitary confinement, during which time she suffered hair loss and became suicidal. Ratcliffe is residing in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. Kamal Foroughi, another British-Iranian dual national, was convicted of espionage in 2011 and is serving his seventh year in the same jail. Members of Ratcliffe’s family were only recently granted visitation rights. Richard, who launched a petition last year which carries more than 919,000 signatures calling for her release, cannot gain a visa to visit Iran. Gabriella, now three-years-old, is still in Iran with her grandmother. She has all but lost her English, and in doing so has all but lost her means of communicating with her father.
While all this has been unfolding Siddiq has been seeking to use the parliamentary tools at her disposal to raise awareness of Ratcliffe’s case. This includes tabling questions, seeking to hold adjournment debates, bringing up her plight earlier this year during Prime Minister’s Questions and meeting Foreign Office ministers. She also co-wrote a letter with Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, calling for a meeting with Theresa May. But she fears the Government are not meeting their end of the bargain.
“I’ve gone to No10 countless times to lobby. I’ve stopped people in the corridors and lobbied,” she says.
“I’m not being cynical or suspicious, but why does the Government want to stop me from asking the questions? I don’t know if there is more to this than meets the eye, but for me, it’s been a very straightforward case in my opinion. The one thing that people will bring up with me is ‘why hasn’t the Government been more vocal about why she hasn’t been released?’ The Government’s been very wary about criticising the conditions in which she’s in. But what is the job of the British government if they’re not going to protect us?”
Indeed, Theresa May raised Nazanin’s case when she met Iranian President Rouhani at the UN last September. Tobias Ellwood, now a defence minister, too spoke with his Iranian counterparts during a visit to Tehran last year while in the Foreign Office. Siddiq claims that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has both refused to meet her to discuss Ratcliffe’s case, and not met members of her family, despite attempts to reach out.
“He’s never met the family, he’s never met with me, he’s never responded to any of my letters. He didn’t come downstairs to receive the petition. I mean, it could be that maybe this isn’t important enough for them,” she says.
“I don’t know if that seems unrealistic – that it’s just not important. Or is it easier to just avoid?”
Diplomatic relations and seeking to open up trade ties, “shouldn’t come at the cost of human lives”, she adds. At today’s debate Siddiq will call ultimately for Ratcliffe’s release, but also for her to be given treatment and help for her mental state, be able to communicate with her husband and be moved from Evin prison. Primarily, she will call for ministers to take a stronger line with Iran in their condemnation of her treatment and imprisonment.
“Ministers, when they go over to Iran, or whether they are speaking to people in authority, they can make demands. My worry is that I’ve never heard the Government come out directly to say ‘why hasn’t she been released’,” she says. “I think they need to be a bit more forceful.”
Beyond the debate, she will also look to strengthen the law with regards to dual nationals and their protection overseas. For this she will use a 10-minute rule motion in the Commons.
“Why are the rights so restricted, why don’t they have consular access, why isn’t there better protection?" she wonders.
The UK government has begun a gradual thawing of relations with Tehran, particularly since the signing of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. The British embassy in Tehran was reopened in 2015, four years after being stormed. On 5 September 2016, the UK appointed an ambassador to Iran for the first time since 2011. Ratcliffe was handed her prison sentence less than a week later. Experts point the finger at the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a security and military group created after the 1979 revolution to enforce Ayatollah Khomeini’s concept of an Islamic republic, who control the courts. The theory goes that the IRGC were seeking to humiliate Britain and President Rouhani’s administration, as relations were reignited. The IRGC were behind Ratcliffe's arrest last year.
Ratcliffe’s case has received widespread media coverage and been championed by Amnesty International, in large part due to the campaigning by her husband Richard. He has previously claimed that she is being used as a “bargaining chip” for an outstanding arms debt between the UK and Iran. Siddiq too believes there is more than meets the eye, but cannot put her finger on what.
“I think she’s in the middle of a power play. I think Nazanin, something’s happened which – you get a feeling. I may not look it, but I’ve been in politics for years and years and years. When you are dealing with campaigns, the vibe you get – my family are from Bangladesh and we’ve had stuff in the past that are quite similar to this. The vibe you get from people, this feels like there’s something they’re not telling us,” she says.
“I don’t want to indulge in huge conspiracy theories. But I just can’t help but feel there’s more to this.”