In a special Woman’s Hour programme that aired last night, Emma Barnett sat down with former political prisoner Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to talk about her six-year ordeal at the hands of the Iranian regime.
Two months after her release from an Iranian detention centre, British-Iranian hostage survivor Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has spoken out in a new interview about the emotional “legacy” of her ordeal, which saw her imprisoned for six years.
Speaking to Emma Barnett in a Woman’s Hour special that aired on the BBC last night (23 May), Zaghari-Ratcliffe relived her harrowing experience from the moment she was arrested in Tehran airport in 2016 as she tried to return to the UK with her 22-month-old daughter following a family holiday.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe described being held in solitary confinement in a one by two metre cell with no windows, which she described as the “most hostile, quiet form of torture”.
She spoke about the emotional anguish of being separated from her young child, and the fleeting moments of joy when she was allowed to visit her in the women’s ward of the detention centre once a week. It was only the thoughts of her daughter, her faith and the solidarity between the imprisoned women that kept her going as she endured years of wrongful detention and uncertainty surrounding her release.
In the interview, Barnett and Zaghari-Ratcliffe discussed the major impact of a moment in 2017 when then-foreign secretary Boris Johnson told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that he understood Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been training journalists in Iran during her trip. Zaghari-Ratcliffe maintained this was incorrect, but says Johnson’s words were used as proof by the Iranian regime that she was working against them.
“There was no evidence that I was here to work,” she told Barnett. “But then when he made that comment, the Revolutionary Guard every time after that, when I stood trial or a new case opened, they would say: ‘You have been hiding information from us. We know you’re a spy and what you’re 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.”
Days after his original comment, Johnson did clarify in the House of Commons that there was no doubt Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been on holiday when she was captured and apologised for distress caused to her and her family. “You can’t undo that,” she continued, adding that during her recent meeting with the prime minister, she stressed to him the impact his incorrect comments had had on her life in prison.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe also revealed that Iran had forced her to sign a last-minute false confession at the airport as a condition of her release. She said a British official had been there when she signed the statement “under duress”, however she questioned why the UK did not challenge Iran over forcing her to admit to crimes she did not commit as a condition of her release.
“Why would I sign something? I have been trying very, very hard for the past six years to say I have not done it,” she explained. “All the false confessions that we have been exposed to, they have no value. They are just propaganda for the Iranian regime to show how scary they are and that they can do whatever they want to do.”
According to the BBC, human rights organisation Redress, acting on Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s behalf, has since written to foreign secretary Liz Truss criticising “the UK government’s apparent complicity in Iran’s forcing of Zaghari-Ratcliffe to sign a false confession as a condition of her release, which has had a lasting impact”.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe returned to the UK in March this year, at the same time the UK government paid a £400 million debt to Iran dating back to the 1970s, although both governments have said the two issues are not linked.
Successive foreign secretaries had led efforts to secure Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release, but Boris Johnson’s government has repeatedly been criticised for its failure to negotiate her freedom.
At a press conference following her release in March, Zaghari-Ratcliffe said it had taken the government far too long to pay the multimillion-pound debt to Iran, which she believes helped secure her release. She said although she could not be happier to be home, “this should have happened six years ago”.
Her remarks sparked significant backlash online from people saying she should be “grateful” to the prime minister and more critical of the Iranian government that detained her.
In her first press conference after being freed, she explained: “I was told many, many times that ‘Oh, we’re going to get you home.’ That never happened. So there was a time that I felt like, you know what, I’m not going to trust you because I’ve been told many, many times that I’m going to be taken home. But that never happened. I mean, how many foreign secretaries does it take for someone to come out? Five. It should have been one.”
As Zaghari-Ratcliffe told Barnett: “No human beings should be attached to international agreements.” Nor should they have to be indebted to their own government for their protection.
She is an innocent woman who lost six years of her and her daughter’s life due in part to government incompetence. Anger, frustration and disillusionment are the very least of what she’s entitled to.