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Commons Diary: Tulip Siddiq

4 min read

Three years and two months since Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained in Iran, her husband Richard began a hunger strike in solidarity. This week Labour MP Tulip Siddiq visited her constituent, whose physical condition is deteriorating, and encouraged others to do the same.

In April 2016, a constituent from West Hampstead – Richard Ratcliffe – met me at my house and informed me that his wife and daughter had been detained. He said her name was Nazanin, that she had been on holiday to see her parents and that he had no idea why she had been held at Khomeini Airport in Iran.

Three years and two months later, Richard began a hunger strike in solidarity with Nazanin who remains detained in the notorious Evin Prison, on the outskirts of Tehran. Richard has set up camp outside the Iranian Embassy, sleeping in a tent on their doorstep. He is doing so in defiance of the Embassy staff who have repeatedly tried to move him along by spraying power hoses and erecting temporary hoardings.

Having campaigned with Richard throughout Nazanin’s detention, I have been struck by the unrelenting intensity of his commitment to secure his wife’s freedom. He has been fearless in his efforts, securing meetings with Foreign Secretaries and their Ministers, unlocking the secrecy that often surrounds the FCO’s responses to difficult consular cases.

Richard’s work has meant that Nazanin’s case has also been raised by Representatives in the US Congress, at the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Canadian Parliament and in the European Parliament. Motions have been tabled in solidarity, and statements issued in support. However, despite our work causing moments of interest along the way, this week has marked a significant shift in awareness amongst MPs in Westminster. 

On Sunday, the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that Nazanin would be spending “the rest of her sentence in jail”. The statement may sound conclusive, but Iran has changed tack throughout and our fight goes on. Richard has regularly responded to setbacks with a show of personal strength, but this week’s hunger strike has revealed new depths to his determination.

Last Monday I visited Richard on his hunger strike. His physical condition was concerning, and so too were the metal barriers being erected around his tent. I knew that Richard’s ability to continue his protest would require boosts to morale along the way. And so, with his encouragement, I wrote to the two candidates for Prime Minister and MPs from across the House to go to the Embassy and to show their support.

The only times I’ve seen Richard’s face really light up in the past three years is when he’s on the phone to his daughter Gabriella. So to see him on Skype to his daughter amidst the visits of so many MPs was really quite special to watch.

At times, campaigning for the Ratcliffe family in Parliament has felt like pushing a boulder up a hill. A belligerent Iranian regime has been compounded by Whitehall’s commitment to more gentle diplomacy for consular cases. With this in mind, to see MPs of all persuasions lend Richard their support has been truly fantastic, not least the rows of visible ‘Free Nazanin’ badges on display at PMQs. 

Between the Free Nazanin campaign and my usual constituency duties, this week I also concluded my responsibilities as the chair of the judging panel for the Orwell Prize (for political writing). The strength of the shortlist made it difficult to pick a winner, but in the end, we chose Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe because of its powerful telling of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Say Nothing encompasses how conflicts can produce incomprehensible personal tragedies. In the case of my constituents, the cruelty of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard – desperate to protect its position of power within Iran – is causing untold misery. For as long as Nazanin remains imprisoned, I imagine I will have many similar weeks to this one.

Tulip Siddiq is Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn

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