UK condemns Iran's 'indefensible' failure to free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Opposition MP calls government a 'toothless tiger' for its inability to secure release of charity worker

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The UK government said it is “indefensible and unacceptable” that Iran has rejected an appeal by detained charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe against her latest sentence.

But opposition MPs criticised the government’s inability to challenge Iran’s detention of dual nationals, including Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, with one describing Boris Johnson’s administration as a “toothless tiger”.

Richard Ratcliffe began a second hunger strike on Sunday outside the UK's foreign office after an Iranian court rejected the appeal by his wife — who has been held in Iran since 2016 — against an additional one-year sentence.

“We continue to call on Iran to let her return home to the UK immediately,” said Middle East minister James Cleverly.

Supporters of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe link her case to a debt of £400 million ($551m) that London has refused to settle since the Shah of Iran was ousted in 1979. She is one of many British-Iranian citizens detained in Iran.

Rights groups accuse Iran of holding dual nationals as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West, something Tehran denies.

Tulip Siddiq, Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s London MP, said Mr Ratcliffe had begun his second hunger strike in two years “pleading with” the government “to do more to challenge Iran’s hostage-taking and to bring Nazanin home”.

“Going on hunger strike is the absolute last resort for anyone and Richard told me that he feels that there’s no other option left because he feels our government’s response to his wife’s case has been pitiful.”

The MP said Mr Ratcliffe was watching from the gallery in parliament to listen to her urgent question in the House of Commons.

“Will the minister acknowledge that Nazanin is a hostage of the Iranian state, secondly will the government bring forward Magnitsky sanctions on those involved in this hostage taking and challenge Iran on it in the courts?” asked Ms Siddiq.

“Will the government finally fulfil the promise of resolving the £400 million debt that we as a country owe Iran and will he work to secure a commitment to end hostage-taking in negotiations around the Iran nuclear deal?”

The Magnitsky sanctions target those responsible for human rights violations and corruption.

Responding to Ms Siddiq, Mr Cleverly insisted that the return of detained nationals was a high priority.

“I can assure her that the UK continues to have this as one of our top priorities and it is the focus of all the conversations that we have with Iran. She will understand that there are already a range of sanctions imposed against both individuals and entities in Iran from the UK and from international bodies.

“Of course, the Iranian regime would love to connect the cases of these British dual nationals with the IMS debt. We regard it as unhelpful to reinforce that link. We make the point very, very clearly that British dual nationals must not be used as a means of diplomatic leverage.

“Therefore, we continue to call on Iran to do the right thing, to release all the British dual nationals in incarceration and allow them to come home to their families and loved ones,” he said.

The Scottish National Party’s foreign spokesman Alyn Smith said that despite the government’s efforts and “cross-party unity, we’ve not seen progress. Arguably we’ve seen reversals”.

“What sort of toothless tiger can’t get its nationals back from an overseas regime that has taken them hostage?”

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was visiting family with her daughter Gabriella when she was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison, accused of plotting to overthrow the government. She spent four years in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison and one under house arrest.

Updated: October 26, 2021, 11:10 AM