Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: Iran protests are at point of 'no return'

British-Iranian charity worker, who was jailed for six years in Tehran, criticises move to shut down the internet

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has spoken out about the protests in Iran during a charity speech. PA
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Protests in Iran have reached a point of "no return" as demonstrators demand wide reforms, British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has said.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe spent six years detained in Iran until she was freed in March after successful negotiations between the British and Iranian governments.

She was visiting her parents in Iran when she was arrested in 2016 and separated from her daughter as she was about to board a flight home from Tehran.

On Wednesday, she gave a speech to the Thomson Reuters Foundation's charity Trust Conference and criticised the situation in Iran.

She said the government's suppression of the demonstrations, which were triggered by the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was accused of wearing her headscarf improperly, and shutting down of the internet showed the regime was scared of losing control.

"The anger has been building up for many, many years," she said.

"We can see a coming together for one single goal and that is freedom. The protests are really, really powerful this time. I don't think we've ever seen the unity we're seeing now."

She described Ms Amini's death as the "spark for an explosion".

"There is a generational shift which plays a massive role in the new movement," said Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who works for the Thomson Reuters Foundation as a project manager.

"This is the generation of social media and TikTok and the internet. They know more about the world and their rights than we did. They have a lot more courage than we did."

The protests have involved women taking off their veils, with crowds calling for the downfall of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Thousands have been detained by security forces and more than 200 killed, including children, according to rights groups.

During her detention in Tehran's Evin prison, Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe said she met many women who had received long jail terms for protesting against Iran's mandatory hijab rule, including one 19-year-old sentenced to 24 years.

She said the current protests were a greater threat to the regime than previous ones because they had attracted broader support, with labour unions now organising strikes which could potentially paralyse the economy.

"There's no return from here," she said. "This is not just about forced hijab any more. It's also about the repressive rules they've been imposing on people for a very, very long time. It's about unemployment, it's about lifestyle, it's about freedom to have access to information and the internet."

Iran has shut down the internet and blocked access to platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp to stop people organising protests and sharing images with the outside world.

"Shutting down the internet is exactly what they are doing when they put people in solitary [confinement], only on a bigger scale," said Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Iranian police arrive to disperse a protest, staged to mark 40 days since the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. AP

"They disconnect you from the outside world so the world doesn't know what is happening to you and you can't tell them. They want people to be scared and feel forgotten."

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe said she would continue to speak up for other detainees, including British-born environmentalist Morad Tahbaz who was expected to fly back to the UK with her in March but was kept behind at the last moment.

He was released on bail with an electronic tag in Tehran in July.

"My story is the story of many people in Iran who remain in prison, I've got the responsibility to be their voice," she said.

"It's a shame for those of us living in enforced exile that we cannot be with the women on the streets but we are certainly very proud."

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe is living in London with her daughter and husband Richard, who ran a long campaign for her release including a three-week hunger strike while camped outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in central London.

"Freedom is a very relative concept," she said. "I'm free in terms of coming out of prison and coming back home to my family in London. But I have left a part of me in Iran.

"I won't be completely free until my country is free."

Updated: October 26, 2022, 4:29 PM