UK grants 'diplomatic protection' to jailed charity worker

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was jailed for five years in Iran in 2016 after she was convicted of espionage, a charge she denies.
Friday 08/03/2019
A 2016 file picture shows Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe (R) embracing her daughter Gabriella in Damavand, Iran following her release from prison for three days. (AFP)
A 2016 file picture shows Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe (R) embracing her daughter Gabriella in Damavand, Iran following her release from prison for three days. (AFP)

LONDON - Jailed British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been granted diplomatic protection by the UK Foreign Office, escalating the conflict over her imprisonment between the UK and Tehran.

UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that the decision “sends a very strong message” to Tehran. He addressed the Islamic Republic directly in comments on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“You [Iran] may have disagreements with the UK, but at the heart of this is an innocent woman, vulnerable unwell and scared. She should not be paying the price for whatever disagreement you have with the UK,” he said.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family has long called on the UK government to grant her diplomatic protection, which raises her case from consular to a state-to-state issue.

In the official statement granting her diplomatic protection, the British government asserted that Tehran has “failed to meet Iran’s obligations under international standards” regarding Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s imprisonment. It added that she “has periodically been denied access to the medical care recommended by doctors,” despite repeated assurances from the Iranian government.

The UK foreign secretary said he was not ruling out taking Tehran to international court or imposing sanctions on it over the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case. “All these things are possible, but we would like to solve this in an amicable way,” he told the Today programme.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was jailed for five years in Iran in 2016 after she was convicted of espionage, a charge she denies. She was a project manager for the Thomson Reuters Foundation – the charity arm of the Reuters news agency – and was arrested in Iran in April 2016 while she was on holiday in the country, taking her daughter to visit her parents.

It’s not clear precisely what effect the decision will have – diplomatic protection has not been granted to a British citizen in 100 years – but family and friends of Zaghari-Ratcliffe hope it will strengthen her case.

“It’s difficult to know exactly what the impact will be. But we do want the world to know the UK will not stand by while its citizens are unjustly treated,” Hunt added.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, welcomed the Foreign Office’s decision, saying at the very least it would increase pressure on Tehran to grant his wife additional medical treatment for “neurological issues” she has been facing.

“Until yesterday, it was our problem that the British government was sympathetic with, in solidarity with, trying to help us along the way,” he told the Today programme.

“Now it’s also the British government’s case and all the injustices that happen to Nazanin are effectively injustices to the British government,” he added.

The decision was also welcomed by a number of NGOs and rights groups monitoring Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case, including Amnesty International.

“We’re pleased to see that Nazanin’s plight remains a priority for the UK Government, and if this helps secure her release after nearly three years of unjust imprisonment then, of course, we welcome the move,” said Amnesty International UK's Director Kate Allen.

“Nazanin should never have been arrested in the first place, and she’s already suffered a string of human rights violations – including arbitrary detention, extended solitary confinement, an unfair trial and the repeated denial of vital medical care in jail.”

“It’s time for the Iranian authorities to stop playing cruel games with Nazanin and her family, and release her immediately and unconditionally,” she added

Iran responded immediately to the UK decision, with Hamid Baeidinejad, Iran’s ambassador to the UK, tweeting that this “contravened international law.”

“Governments may only exercise such protection for own nationals,” he said. “As the UK government is acutely aware, Iran does not recognise dual nationality. Irrespective of UK residency, Ms Zaghari thus remains Iranian.”