UK 'complicit' in Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s false confession

The British-Iranian mother was told she could not leave Iran unless she signed the document at Tehran airport

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The UK government on Tuesday rejected claims from Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe that British officials were complicit in an unlawful false confession that she was forced to sign in March before she was allowed to leave Iran after six years.

Tulip Siddiq, her MP, told the British Parliament on Tuesday that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe had ripped up an original draft of the confession at the airport but during tense hours leading up to her departure, a British official stepped in to relay the message that she could not leave unless the document was signed.

Ms Siddiq said her constituent only signed after a UK official at the airport told her she would not be able to leave otherwise.

Foreign Office minister Amanda Milling told Parliament the official had not compelled Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe to sign the document but only passed on the message from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Ms Milling was repeatedly asked if the prime minister or foreign secretary had authorised the British official to reinforce the Iranian demand.

"Given the situation Iran put her in, she agreed to sign it," Ms Milling said, as Richard Ratcliffe, the husband who campaigned for the charity worker's release throughout her six-year ordeal, watched on from the public gallery in Westminster. "The UK official did not force Nazanin to do so."

Mr Ratcliffe said it was “startling” that his wife had been urged by a senior British official to sign the document before she was allowed to board an aircraft to take her out of Iran.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and another British dual citizen Anoosheh Ashoori were released after the UK paid a £400 million ($503m) debt to Tehran over an arms deal that was aborted after the 1979 revolution.

She was arrested in April 2016 at Tehran's international airport as she prepared to leave the country after visiting her parents. She was sentenced to five years in jail on trumped-up charges of attempting to topple the regime. She was kept in the country for a further year at the end of her sentence as talks continued between the two countries.

She said she was told by a judge as early as February 2018 that she was being held because of the dispute over the arms debt.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe revealed in a BBC interview broadcast on Tuesday that the Iranians put pressure on her in the final days of her detainment to confess to being a spy and to sign a document while being filmed.

"I was made to sign the forced confession at the airport in the presence of the British government," Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe said.

"They told me that 'you won't be able to get on the plane'. And I knew that that was like a last-minute game because … they told me that they had been given the money,” she said.

“So what is the point of making me sign a piece of paper, which is incorrect? It's a false confession.”

Mr Ratcliffe told Sky News there were two attempts to persuade her to sign the confession in the final days before she left Iran, after years of refusing to admit she had done anything wrong.

Two days before she eventually left the country, she was taken, along with a British official, to an IRGC office to sign a document that was left partially blank to allow the gaps to be filled in afterwards, he said.

She was told to sign the document two days later at the airport. “This time the British official said, ‘if you want to get on that plane, you have to sign this’,” said Mr Ratcliffe.

“I think it was startling that the British government also required her to sign that confession.”

Rights group Redress, which worked on her behalf, has written to the UK’s Foreign Ministry calling for an inquiry.

The letter said “it appears UK officials were complicit in an unlawful act by the Iranian authorities, telling her that she must sign a false confession in circumstances where she effectively had no other choice”.

The lawyers said the actions of UK officials went against British policy not to solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture or mistreatment, Ms Siddiq told Parliament.

“Zaghari-Ratcliffe had resisted intense pressure to make a false confession on many occasions during interrogations and during her eight and a half months in solitary confinement,” the letter said.

“To be told to sign a false confession by her own government after all she had survived was deeply distressing to her.”

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 43, told the BBC that she expects the video to be used for Iranian propaganda purposes.

"The whole thing of me signing the forced confession was filmed," Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe said. "It's a tool. So I'm sure they will show that some day."

The UK's Foreign Ministry said the confession was in line with the Iranian practice of extracting false confessions.

“Iran put Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe through a horrendous ordeal, right up to the moment she left the country," a representative said.

"Throughout that time the UK government was working tirelessly to end her unfair detention, but it was always in Iran’s gift to release Nazanin and allow her to return to her family."

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe also criticised Prime Minister Boris Johnson for wrongly saying in 2017 that she had been training journalists in Iran.

In 2017, when he was foreign secretary, he erroneously told a foreign affairs committee that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was "teaching people journalism" in Iran.

She had been a project manager for the Thomson Reuters Foundation when she was detained, but she insisted her trip to Iran was a holiday to see her parents.

She said Mr Johnson's mistake enabled Iranian authorities to claim she was a spy.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe said she explained this to Mr Johnson at a meeting in Downing Street this month.

"For about a year and a half, I was trying to say: 'Look, I was on holiday … I have come with a baby, with a suitcase full of nappies'.

"But then when he made that comment, the Revolutionary Guards every time after that … they said: 'You have been hiding information from us. We know that you're a spy. We know what you were up to, even your prime minister mentioned that.'

"So I lived under the shadow of his comment psychologically and emotionally for the following four-and-a-half years after that day."

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe said she was readjusting to normal life in the UK but merely seeing a picture might send her back to her ordeal in prison.

She said: "We have got a saying in Farsi that says, 'you might leave prison but prison will never leave you'. It will be with you for the rest of your life and I think I need to accept that."

Updated: May 24, 2022, 1:29 PM
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