Richard Ratcliffe at the Cambridge Union

Richard’s wife has been in Iranian custody on false charges since March 2016

In 2016, British-Iranian journalist Nazanin Khaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested in Iran on various false charges, ranging from espionage to spreading propaganda about the Iranian government. To this day, Nazanin remains in Iranian custody, after already having completed a prison sentence for initial charges. 

Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, has been working with the British government over the past five years to try to secure her release. On the 19th of January, he spoke at The Cambridge Union and we were given the opportunity to sit down with him prior to his event. Richard talked to us about various key moments in the process of working to secure Nazanin’s release. 

On learning how to work with the government

Soon, Richard will have worked with a third Prime Minister and fifth Foreign Secretary in his quest for justice for Nazanin. When asked about his developing relationship with the government, he said it’s “been a process of discovery on our part.” 

He spoke about a “naivety” he had in believing that just “shouting from the rooftops” would help bring Nazanin home. After so many years, he’s learned about what he calls the “policy gap”, or the underlying problems behind Iran’s “hostage-taking” – such as the UK’s large debt to Iran. 

However – despite these new learnings –  every time the “wheel gets reset” and ministers change, he and his family go through the trauma of losing Nazanin all over again. “There’s a feeling of being left on the shelf, being left behind” when a new person comes into office. 

He understands that any “good minister” will have a lot of work to sift through, and over the years his approach has grown to include a hopeful patience. 

Image credits: Elizabeth Styles

Currently, he is briefed on situation updates every three weeks by a foreign office staffer, as a regular dialogue between the government and his campaign. More than anything else, he accepts that the key to progress is getting each official to care about Nazanin as a person rather than a file. 

A Foreign Office spokesperson outlined that “Iran should free all those British nationals unfairly detained in Iran. The Foreign Secretary, Minister Cleverly and senior officials consistently raise the cases of Nazanin Zaghari- Ratcliffe, Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz with the Iranian authorities and will continue to do so.”

Understanding who the “bad guy” is

Apart from learning how the British government works, a key step in creating a more productive campaign has been understanding who the “bad guy” really is. 

While the British government hasn’t yet been able to “bring Nazanin home,” they are not “hostage-takers” nor have they been responsible for the harassment of his wife.

With regards to how they’re working on Nazanin’s release, a Foreign Office spokesperson said:

“We are working hard to secure Nazanin’s release and call on Iran to do so urgently. Iran’s decision to proceed with baseless charges against her is an appalling continuation of her cruel ordeal, and she must be allowed to return home to her family.”

Image credits: Elizabeth Styles

In his discussion of the Revolutionary Guard’s “imposing involvement” in his wife’s life, Richard says they would accompany her to all appointments, even claiming they were inside the room when she visited the gynaecologist.

Early on, when their (at the time) two- year-old daughter Gabriela was still in Iran, they would allegedly insist on playing with her in front of Nazanin before handing her over to her mother. 

It’s “easy to rant about the people that are close to us,” Richard said with regards to the British government. “But it’s important to remember” that they have not taken Nazanin hostage.

Choosing to go on hunger strike

Richard has been on hunger strike twice, most recently in late 2021. When asked about taking the decision, he emphasised it wasn’t “something you can plan for.” 

He was spurred into action by the threat of Nazanin’s freedoms being stripped yet again and the British government’s response that “there would be consequences” only if Nazanin was put back in prison. While a hunger strike was something he’d “idly considered”, it was only at this point that he was determined to see it through. 

The Foreign Office said Richard met with the Foreign Secretary, Minister Cleverly and other senior officials during his hunger strike.

Richard also shared that as a campaign, they all wondered “what else [they] could do” after so many years in the public eye. There was an element of “news fatigue” he hoped this strike would counter. 

When asked about the impact it had on his family during the Union event, Richard was clear that the impacts were more widespread than he’d accounted for. Not only did it impact his now seven-year-old daughter, Gabriela, but it harmed the wider familial network who now needed to work harder to make her life feel as normal as possible.

Hoping for a return to normal

Nazanin was briefly released from prison in 2020, with a restricted periphery of movement monitored by both the Revolutionary Guard team she was assigned and an ankle tag. Richard spoke to the “euphoria” she felt at being immersed in the outside world, even in the limited way she experienced it. 

When FaceTiming her mother, Gabriela created an almost “show and tell” environment, sharing her dolls and toys with her mother as any “normal” family would. 

She was able to catch up with her friends’ lives, some of whom had been married, had children, or been divorced in the time Nazanin was in prison… It was as close to normal as she’d felt in years. 

At the same time, Nazanin had gained notoriety she had never asked for. Richard recounted an instance where her father-in-law was pulled over by the police in Iran for speeding with Nazanin in the car, when they avoided legal action because the police officer recognised who she was. 

He also told us how the intimidating presence of the Revolutionary Guard in the first few months of her release – coupled with her newfound notoriety – meant no one was willing to visit her at home. She would search for more “neutral” places to meet her family and friends, preferring crowded areas, such as coffee shops. 

Unfortunately, Nazanin has now been threatened with the loss of even the limited “freedom” she had in 2020. For Richard, it feels as though “life is on hold” until he gets to see his wife again. 

He said he was “slightly less hopeful” than he was a year ago, because while they could earlier count down the days to the end of Nazanin’s sentence, there is now a “sword of Damocles” hanging over all of their heads. At the same time, he must remain hopeful that Nazanin will be back home and their family can “rebuild”. 

During the event, he shared that while he thinks hopefully about the fact that the release could be tomorrow, he prefers instead to plan for a delayed release, so he is not too wounded when another day alone passes. 

Image credits: Elizabeth Styles

How Cambridge students can help

Finally, we asked Richard what we as a student body could do to help his family “return to normal,” as he calls it. His answer was clear, immediate and passionate.  

“Just keep on noticing.” Paying attention to similar injustices occurring around the world is the biggest way in which students can make an impact. When the world stops caring, the “hollowing out of British citizenships” with clear “accountability gaps” is allowed to continue. 

Richard spoke about the propensity students have to believe that the world can be different – to harbour hope that the adult population tends to lose along the way. Having people outside the campaign notice – and care – has been what’s “kept us going” for so many years, he said. 

The campaign, “freenazanin” also has a petition online, which has so far garnered 3.75 million signatures across 155 countries. The petition can be found here 

Feature Image Credits: Elizabeth Styles