The long six-year wait for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's return

Charity worker will soon be reunited with husband Richard Ratcliffe and daughter Gabriella in London

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, and their daughter Gabriella, who is now 8. PA
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The family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe spent the last days of 2017 sitting around the phone at their London home hoping for the call to tell them she was being released from Evin jail in Tehran.

The situation seemed favourable. The charity worker was eligible for early release from her five-year jail sentence and the international campaign was growing in volume and effectiveness.

But it never happened. It was one of the many crushing disappointments for Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family over the next four years.

“All that noise didn’t work,” her husband Richard Ratcliffe said a year later. “We’re not hopeful so much as fearful of what the future might bring.”

Interviewed by The National at the time, Mr Ratcliffe said his worst-case scenario was that his wife would be forced to serve her entire five-year term, a prospect he found appalling to consider.

But on Wednesday, the couple eventually received the good news they had been waiting for, after her release was secured and confirmed, along with British-Iranian detainee, Anooseh Ashoori.

They have spent nearly six years apart since her initial arrest, with husband and daughter in London and mother at her family home in Tehran. They were connected only by video and voice calls.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe's six years in Iran – in Evin, on an electronic monitor then eventually untagged but still stuck in the country – have been marked by trauma, depression, health fears and painful separation.

The cherished prospect of having a sibling for Gabriella diminished every year the 43-year-old mother was barred from leaving the country. Her husband sought to secure a visa but said promises from Iran to provide one were never fulfilled.

The campaign to free Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who works for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news organisation, had continued during the service of five British foreign secretaries and suffered a series of setbacks.

They included a gaffe by Boris Johnson, who was foreign secretary when he suggested to MPs that she had been in the country to teach journalists.

The comment was seized on by Iranian media – although later withdrawn by Mr Johnson – and Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was brought back to court four days later. Campaigners claimed there was a direct link between the two incidents.

She was given three days of temporary leave in 2018 but was so traumatised by the prospect of a return to jail that she had to be talked out of a hunger strike. The day after she passed 1,000 days in prison in December 2018, she was visited by interrogators who offered her freedom in return for spying for the regime.

With her health failing under the stress of prison conditions, she spent six days in a psychiatric ward in 2019 handcuffed to a prison bed and monitored by five guards around the clock.

“It was proper torture,” she said in comments released by her family. “It was tough and I was struggling. But I am glad I survived.”

Mr Ratcliffe was prominent in demanding that the £400 million ($522.7m) debt owed by Britain to Iran over an aborted 1970s arms deal should be honoured to ease the path to freeing his wife and other dual-citizen prisoners held by the Iranians.

The dispute over the final figure continued to rumble through the British courts. The government accepted that it owed money but claimed it was difficult to pay back because of international sanctions on Iran.

“Clearly we are caught up in dispute between UK and Iran and that’s not our fault,” Mr Ratcliffe had said.

Today, current UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said repaying the "legitimate" debt was a priority. She did not confirm that it had been paid.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been out of prison since March 2020 but without her passport was unable to leave the country and the possibility of more time behind bars had always remained a threat.

With the family still separated, Gabriella had written to Mr Johnson, now UK Prime Minister, in December 2020 asking for her mother's return. "Dear Boris Johnson, please can you bring my mummy home for Christmas," Gabriella, now 8, had said. "She has been good."

Mr Ratcliffe’s outspoken campaigning had increasingly been the template for other families demanding that Iran release their loved ones.

Those families have publicly urged their respective countries to raise the issue of their relatives during conversations with Tehran.

Another opportunity to secure Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe's release had come with attempts to resume the 2015 nuclear deal in Vienna.

A letter signed by 20 families of detainees and inmates said there could be no deal without all prisoners being freed and Tehran committing to end the practice of hostage taking. The return of her British passport on Tuesday signalled new hope for Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe's release, with confirmation she was at the airport in Tehran bringing joy to her loved ones.

Updated: March 17, 2022, 10:45 AM
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