Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe secures passport in new hope for freedom

British dual-national gets documents after talks to resolve arms deal debt between UK and Iran from the 1970s

Iranian-British aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been unable to leave Iran since 2016. Reuters
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Detained British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has got her British passport back in a major boost for her freedom after nearly six years detention in Iran.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe remains at her family home in Tehran as talks continue for her release with a British negotiating team in the capital, according to her MP, Tulip Siddiq.

"I am very pleased to say that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been given her British passport back," Ms Siddiq wrote in a tweet.

The breakthrough came after her lawyer in Iran said he was hopeful of a "good news" soon after Tehran and London continued talks about a long-standing £400 million ($542m) debt. Some reports in Iranian media suggested that the debt had been paid.

Reports from Iran also raised hopes for the possible release of Anoosheh Ashoori, 67, a British dual-national held since 2017.

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that discussions remained at a "delicate" stage.

"I don't want to tempt fate," he told reporters. "Negotiations about all our difficult consular cases have been going on for a long time."

The UK's Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said that it continued to "explore options to resolve the [debt] case and will not comment further as discussions are ongoing".

A spokesperson added: "We have long called for the release of unfairly detained British nationals in Iran. we don't comment on speculation."

Campaigners who have worked with Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe have also urged caution after similar false dawns over the past six years.

Redress, which works with survivors of torture, said that Iranian media reported last year the debt had been paid and a deal had been reached to release Western prisoners - but nothing came of it.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 43, a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested at a Tehran airport in April 2016 while visiting her family with her daughter, then aged 22 months. She was later convicted of plotting to overthrow the clerical establishment.

Her daughter, Gabriella, had stayed with her grandparents in Iran but was allowed to return to the UK in October 2019 to join her father, Richard Ratcliffe.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe served an initial five-year term but was freed from prison with an electronic tag in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. She had been barred from leaving Iran on her release and remained at the family home.

She was given an additional one-year term in April last year on charges of "spreading propaganda against the system" for taking part in a 2009 demonstration in front of the Iranian Embassy in London. She was not returned to prison but remained stuck in Iran.

Her husband, who has been unable to visit Iran, conducted a vigorous public campaign for her release that included hunger strikes on the steps of the embassy in London.

He has called for sanctions for senior Iranian officials and appealed for international help at the United Nations to secure the release of his wife and other foreign prisoners.

When asked whether Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe will be released from her ordeal, her lawyer Hojjat Kermani told Reuters: “I am hopeful that we will have good news soon.”

Britain said last month that it was “continuing to explore options as a matter of urgency to resolve” the repayment of the debt.

The families of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Mr Ashoori say the debt is a critical issue in their continuing detention in Iran.

Mr Ashoori, a retired engineer, remains inside Evin Prison in Tehran serving a 10-year sentence after he was convicted of spying following what his supporters say was a sham trial.

The two countries had insisted that the debt — dating back to the sale of tanks to the Shah of Iran in the mid-1970s — is not linked to the fate of the prisoners and talks in Vienna to resume the 2015 nuclear deal.

But US officials have signalled that a deal is unlikely unless its own nationals are freed.

Two other Britons are known to be held in prison in Iran.

Morad Tahbaz, who holds US, UK and Iranian passports, was detained with at least nine others from an Iranian wildlife charity in January 2018.

He was jailed for a decade the following year on charges of espionage.

Mehran Raoof, a former teacher, was jailed for ten years in 2021 for membership of an outlawed group after campaigning for labour rights.

Mr Raoof, 65, told a friend that he was not part of any potential release deal, according to Satar Rahmani, who has campaigned on his behalf from London.

"He said that because he hasn't been accused of spying for the British government it doesn't come under this deal," said Mr Rahmani. "But he is a British citizen as well."

The UK government has been exploring legal ways to pay the historical debt, as international economic sanctions on Iran have made it difficult.

Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK's chief executive, warned that the latest reports should be treated with caution.

He said: "We sincerely hope these reports are correct.

"The detainees and their families have been suffering for years, and a resolution can't come quickly enough.

"It's been clear for a long time that the Iranian authorities have been targeting foreign nationals with spurious national security-related charges to exert diplomatic pressure.

"In the past we've had false dawn after false dawn over possible breakthroughs, so it's only right to be cautious at the moment."

Updated: March 17, 2022, 10:43 AM
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