Boris Johnson apologises to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family

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Helen Booth
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The foreign secretary’s most recent blunder has left Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe “on the verge of a nervous breakdown”, says her husband

Boris Johnson has been forced to apologise for his comments about British woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been imprisoned in Iran since 2016. Speaking to the House of Commons, the British government’s foreign secretary said he was sorry for suggesting that Zaghari-Radcliffe had been teaching journalism in Iran when she was arrested. Zagahri-Radcliffe was on holiday, he told the UK Parliament.

“As I said in the House last week, my remarks on the subject before the Foreign Affairs Committee could and should have been clearer,” said Johnson. “And I acknowledge that the words that I used were open to being misinterpreted and I apologise to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family if I have inadvertently caused them any further anguish.”

He apologised for the “distress and suffering” caused by his remarks, adding: “I do apologise, I do apologise and of course I retract any suggestion that she was there in a professional capacity.”

However, Johnson’s remarks had already caused significant damage, being cited by the Iranian government as evidence that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “spreading propaganda against the regime”, the charge for which she has already been sentenced to five years in jail. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, has described his wife as being “on the verge of a nervous breakdown” following the inaccurate comments made by Boris Johnson about the purpose of her visit to Tehran.

On the 1 November, Johnson told the foreign affairs committee that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “simply teaching people journalism” in Iran when she was detained there in April 2016. This statement was incorrect: Zaghari-Ratcliffe was working for a media charity at the time of her arrest in Tehran, and was not a journalist nor a journalism teacher.

Her husband insists that she was visiting Iran so that her parents could meet their then-22-month-old daughter for the first time.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been detained in Tehran since April 2016

The Guardian reports that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “brought to tears of shock and anger” following Johnson’s original comments. Ratcliffe says that lumps have been found in her breasts that required an ultrasound scan, and her mental health has deteriorated to the point that she is now “on the verge of a nervous breakdown”.

Describing a recent phone call, Ratcliffe said his wife felt violated by the lies the Iranian establishment had told about her activities, but also criticized Johnson for his handling of the issue. “She expressed anger at the Guards, but also at the foreign secretary, that it had become such a shambles,” Ratcliffe said.

He added that Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been left “angry at the original comments, angry at the footage of avoiding the question” after seeing Johnson’s performance at the foreign affairs select committee.

However, Ratcliffe declined to join a growing call for the foreign secretary’s resignation, saying he believed, “Nazanin’s interests are not served by more instability”.

He continued: “Just as Tulip Siddiq is Nazanin’s member of parliament, and has pushed the government, Boris Johnson is Nazanin’s foreign secretary, her government’s voice vis-a-vis Iran. Both have a crucial role in the weeks ahead to stand up for Nazanin, and finally to bring her home.”

On the subject of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s health, her husband said: “Nazanin was taken to Iranmehr hospital, Tehran, to see a specialist and conduct an ultrasound. New lumps had been identified in each of her breasts. Nazanin has been complaining of sharp stabbing pains in her breasts for some months – her breasts have been painful since month five of her detention. She had previously been given an inconclusive mammography by the in-prison gynaecologist.”

The specialist has told her that he believed they were likely benign, Ratcliffe said, but she has to be kept under close surveillance.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, has raised concerns for her mental health

Speaking of her mental health, Zaghari-Ratcliffe told her husband that her mood was now uncontrollable. “She loses her temper over the smallest things,” he said. “Everything annoys her, but [she] is unable to see why she gets so cross.”

He added that she is “quick to feel like others are ganging up. She noted that she is very down, that she cannot handle all this. It is too much pressure, as she becomes part of hostile daily news.”

“Nazanin reports feeling continually restless and out of focus, unable to concentrate on things like reading. This weekend she again suggested she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown – a perpetual sense of not knowing what to do,” he said.

Ratcliffe said that he was appreciative of media attention to the case in recent days and hoped that it would bring political attention to his wife’s fate. “As her husband, my complaint is not that Nazanin’s imprisonment has become a diplomatic incident this past week,” he said. “It is that it wasn’t for the 19 months before. I thank everyone for their part in making that shift.”

At the time of writing, a petition made to the Prime Minister to free Zaghari-Ratcliffe has amassed 1,078,108 signatures.