Boris Johnson accused of endangering life of British woman imprisoned in Iran

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Moya Crockett
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The foreign secretary’s most recent blunder could lead to a longer prison sentence for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been detained in Iran for over a year. 

Boris Johnson has been accused of endangering the life of a British-Iranian woman imprisoned in Iran, after he made misleading comments about her career to a Commons committee.

Johnson, the British government’s foreign secretary, told the foreign affairs committee last week that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “simply teaching people journalism” in Iran when she was detained there in April 2016. This statement was inaccurate: 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.

However, Johnson’s remarks have since been 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. 

The Guardian reports that she was unexpectedly summoned to appear in court on Saturday, three days after Johnson made the incorrect remarks.

The foreign secretary has faced a storm of criticism for his error, which detractors say could add years to Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s prison term and even threaten her life.

Tulip Siddiq, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s MP, told the Financial Times that she could not believe Johnson would make such a dangerous mistake.

“How could he be so careless?” she said. “This is life or death!”

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson.

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry wrote to Johnson on Monday 6 November, saying that he should resign if Iran increases Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s sentence because of his statement.

Addressing the foreign secretary, Thornberry said his “inaccurate and ill-judged comments” revealed “a fundamental lack of interest or concern for the details of Nazanin’s case and the consequences of your words”.

“While your previous gaffes in the role of foreign secretary may have seriously damaged this country’s interests abroad, and caused grave offence to our international partners, this is – I believe – the first time that one of your comments has directly harmed the interests and prospects of a British national who instead should have been entitled to expect your support and aid,” she said.

Mike Gapes, a Labour member of the foreign affairs committee who was present for Johnson’s statement, observed that his remarks appeared to be have been unprepared.

“It’s just typical of him. He doesn’t do detail. He wings it,” Gapes said. 

Campaigners protest for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe outside the Houses of Parliament, October 2017.

Conservative ministers have also criticised Johnson’s remarks about Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Writing on Twitter, Tory MP Anna Soubry described the error as “appalling”.

“In ‘normal’ times Boris Johnson would have been sacked long ago,” she said.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a retired Conservative politician who worked for Prime Ministers David Cameron, John Major and Margaret Thatcher, told the BBC that Johnson needed “to concentrate more” and “get the detail right”.

However, international trade secretary Liam Fox told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme: “We all make slips of the tongue.”

Fox later said on Sky News that Johnson’s comments didn’t constitute a “serious gaffe”.

Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, at an event in April 2017 for the one-year anniversary of her imprisonment. 

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested at Tehran airport last year, after visiting Iran for Nowruz (Persian New Year) with her baby daughter Gabriella. She was later convicted for spying.

The Guardian reports that the Iranian government believes Zaghari-Ratcliffe was involved in “recruiting and training people to spread propaganda against Iran” because she had once worked for the BBC. The BBC has dismissed this accusation as “ridiculous”, saying that she only had a junior administrative role at Media Action, its international charitable project.

Her employer at the time of her arrest, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, has also said that she was not in Iran for professional reasons. A spokesperson for the charity said that Johnson had made a “serious mistake” in his description of Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

The Foreign Office said that Johnson would call the Iranian foreign minister to clarify his remarks about Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, insists that she visiting Iran so that her parents could meet their then-22-month-old daughter for the first time. Speaking to the Today programme on Tuesday 7 November, Ratcliffe called on Johnson to formally retract his comments.

The “worst thing” the foreign secretary could do, he said, was to “suddenly go quiet and to create this problem without making any clarifications”.

Ratcliffe added that he still hopes his wife and daughter (who is currently being cared for by her grandparents) will be back in the UK for Christmas. 

Images: / Rex Features