Iran detentions: The dual nationals being used as bargaining chips

The Revolutionary Guard — which has vast business interests in the country — uses detained dual nationals to dissuade foreign investors securing lucrative contracts, according to diplomats and lawyers

A guard stands along a corridor in Tehran's Evin prison. Reuters
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Three dual nationals were rounded up in Iran within days of each other in the spring of 2016. Two are still languishing in the notorious Evin prison but one got out.

When Homa Hoodfar was released in October after a 112-day ordeal, the prison authorities wanted her to look her best. She was taken to a salon to have her hair dyed and given a smart, brightly-coloured outfit.

Once home in Canada, she described a regime of torture and psychological pressure as incessant, designed to undermine the dual nationals' sense of identity. Ms Hoodfar, an academic, spent her first days behind bars Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian charity worker, 37, who is now at the centre of a highly public campaign for her release.

Ms Hoodfar said she was imprisoned on the birthday of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe's daughter Gabriella. “She was crying because she was obviously missing her daughter and was worried about her," Ms Hoodfar added.

The third woman, cancer-stricken Nazak Afshar, is an employee of France’s foreign ministry and remains, like Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, in detention.


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"I was prepared I might face a few years in prison or as they said 15 years maybe I would never be released," Mrs Hoodfar recalled on her release.

But the prospect of a long spell in prison was only one aspect of her ordeal.

Interrogators broke into the widow’s iPad, finding the music that was played at her husband’s funeral two years earlier. "One of the techniques they have is to make you cry," she said. "I didn't, so they played the music that was played when my husband's body was removed.

"That was the most difficult moment I had."

Ms Hoodfar has at least now returned home to freedom. For many others, days turn into months and then years.

For the family of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was arrested in April 2016, the fate of another British-Iranian, Roya Nobakht, sets a worrying precedent.

Ms Nobakht was arrested in October 2013 after posting anti-regime comments on Facebook while in the UK. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison, later reduced to seven, for crimes against “national security” and “insulting Islamic sanctities”. Another seven Iranians bloggers and activists were jailed along with her.

During her time in custody, she was forced to stand outside in the rain during winter for two days leaving her with kidney problems. She was denied medical treatment and left in solitary confinement for months. Her supporters say that she had a breakdown inside prison.

A vocal campaign by her supporters failed to secure her immediate release. Then for months, British diplomats pleaded her plight “repeatedly and at all levels” with the Iranians.

Ms Nobakht was released from prison earlier this year but also ordered to stay with her family in Iran until the end of her seven-year term. “They probably thought there was no point to keeping her,” said Nasser Homayoun-Fekri, a family friend who campaigned on her behalf.

She remains separated from her husband who was also detained and mistreated when he went to Iran to see his wife, said Mr Homayoun-Fekri. Her husband slipped out of Iran illegally and is back at home in Manchester in the north-west of England.

Campaigners believe that Ms Nobakht was only let out of prison as part of a murky game of pressure on the British government to extract concessions. It has emerged that the Iranians are seeking from Britain the settlement of a £400 million (Dh1.9bn) debt over an aborted weapons deal 38 years ago.

“It’s very clear: these dual nationals are being kept hostage,” said Shiva Mahbobi from the Campaign to Free Political Prisoners in Iran. “They target the governments if they want them to give them something. The reason that she was released was just to pressurise the British government.”


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The New York-based Centre for Human Rights in Iran said it had recorded at least 12 dual nationals, foreign nationals and foreign permanent residents in jails in Iran. The actual figure is believed to be higher, however. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has arrested at least 30 dual nations during the past two years, mostly on spying charges, according to cases compiled by Reuters.

The Guard — which has vast business interests in the country — has used these dual nationals as bargaining chips to dissuade foreign investors securing lucrative contracts, according to diplomats and lawyers. Iran does not recognise dual nationality, which means the detainees do not have any rights to consular assistance.

Set against the backdrop of the mountain ranges north of Tehran, Evin prison has played a notorious role in Iran since the days of the Shah. The country’s main jail for political prisoners came equipped with basement torture chambers and tiny solitary isolation cells when the complex was built in 1972.

Its infamy is such that Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, has eschewed official advice to avoid running a vocal campaign for her immediate freedom. He does not believe in “softly, softly” behind-the-scenes talks and has gone public with a latest round of criticisms of the UK and Iranian governments.

Describing his wife as “falling apart” in jail, Mr Ratcliffe also paid tribute to the role played by Narges Mohamadi, a fellow prisoner in Evin, who has acted as Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s mentor in the women’s wing. She has encouraged Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe to teach the other inmates English in weekly lessons. “It’s a way everyone can contribute. They have a cleaning rota, they do craft work," Mr Ratcliffe said.

“When [it was] Gabriella’s birthday they made her a bag. Another made her a wooden elephant. They are kind and care for each other’s children.”

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a charity worker for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested in April 2016 while on holiday in Iran visiting family and later charged with plotting to overthrow the regime. Her situation worsened after British foreign secretary Boris Johnson told MPs that she was “simply teaching people journalism” — a statement he later retracted.

“I think it’s brilliant the way Richard has been working,” said Ms Mahbobi, herself a former political prisoner in the 1980s. “One of the problems with Roya’s case was that that family was not vocal at all. When the name is not out there, the case is going to be diminished.”