Hope builds in Tehran’s Evin jail as nuclear talks focus on prisoner release

Families say talks over resuming the nuclear accord are the best chance for releasing ‘hostages’ held by Iran

Posters stacked against a wall as Richard Ratcliffe, husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, ended his hunger strike outside the Foreign Office in London in November 2021.  AFP
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Even in the grim, overcrowded Evin jail, optimism has been rising for weeks among prisoners held by Iran as bargaining chips that, after years of setbacks, freedom could soon be possible.

About 20 prisoners from countries including the US, UK, Germany, Austria, Sweden and France are being held on what are widely considered to be fabricated charges. Several have been threatened with the death penalty.

Prisoners include Emad Sharghi, an Iranian American held since 2018, and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian citizen who has served a five-year prison sentence but is still barred from leaving the country to join her husband and daughter in the UK.

Their families have long said that there can be no international dealings with Iran unless the prisoners are released.

Britain said on Tuesday that a conclusion to the talks was imminent — but the future of the hostages remains unclear. Media reports said on Tuesday that a “prisoner swap” between the US and Iran was expected soon.

“Now in the endgame of this negotiation. Time for us to conclude,” said Stephanie Al-Qaq, the UK Foreign Office’s director of the Middle East and North Africa department.

Families of prisoners told The National that they began lobbying their governments hard when talks started in Vienna in April 2021 to ensure that foreign political prisoners and those held on trumped up charges were part of an agreement to resume the nuclear deal under US President Joe Biden.

A US-based group — Hostage Aid Worldwide — was set up before the Vienna talks to tackle the global industry in prisoner-taking for political gain.

At its launch, a former US prisoner in Iran, Xiyue Wang, said: “Any political deal that does not explicitly address Iran’s hostage-taking behaviour will not stop Iran’s hostage-taking.”

Campaigners said that the US had hardened its public stance since the talks started, with the US special envoy for Iran Robert Malley saying last month it would be “very hard” to return to the deal while four Americans were still being held.

The US-led team had been much quieter on linking the two issues a year ago, said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the US-based Centre for Human Rights in Iran.

“It would be inconceivable to have a new deal with the EU, US and Iran while people remained in jails,” he said.

“There is no way these diplomats can go home and tell the public that the fate of their hostages was not resolved.”

Once advised by their governments to keep quiet, the families have begun to speak out to demand the release of their loved ones and to criticise the tactics of their governments.

Several former and current detainees — including British-Iranian prisoner Anoosheh Ashoori; Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen who was held on spying charges from 2015-2019 — went on hunger strike this year to press their demand that no new nuclear deal should be reached without the release of the prisoners.

Vienna negotiations

The talks have focused on the unfreezing of Iranian funds and the release of western prisoners, diplomats told Reuters. The talks included negotiators from the UK, France, Germany and the US — all of which have prisoners in Iran held on what are considered to be false charges.

Mariam Claren, whose mother, Nahid Taghavi, was detained during a crackdown on rights activists in October 2020, said she had told the German government in April last year that her mother’s case had to be considered as part of the talks.

Families and supporters on Friday told The National that none of them had been briefed by their governments on the talks and what it meant for their relatives.

“Imagine the mental torture the families will go through in the coming weeks. Nobody knows what’s going to happen or knows if their family member is involved in a deal,” said Ms Claren.

Mr Namazi, a businessman working in Dubai, was arrested on a visit to Tehran in 2015. His father was also jailed after coming to visiting his son before being released on health grounds.

Friends of Mehran Raoof, a British-Iranian labour activist swept up with Ms Taghavi during the October 2020 arrests, said he was optimistic about a possible release in the coming months if the talks were successful.

“I spoke to him three weeks ago,” said his friend, Satar Rahmani. “He’s hoping he’ll be released after a year — he’s thinking about the negotiations and a possible prisoner exchange.”

Mr Ashoori, held since 2017 and jailed for a decade on fabricated charges of spying for Israel, has discussed the political situation with other prisoners, including Siamak Namazi, the longest-serving American prisoner in Evin, and is more hopeful of release than he has been for years, his wife said.

“There’s a feeling now that it’s all or nothing,” said Mr Ashoori’s wife, Sherry Izadi.

Updated: February 22, 2022, 10:39 PM