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15 November 2017updated 08 Sep 2021 6:55am

The campaign to free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe shows the power of online activism

If family members feel the government isn't doing enough, there are ways to exert pressure. 

By Kajal Odedra

Imagine a loved one goes abroad for a holiday. They get arrested, with no idea why. And they have no right to consular support that could help prove their innocence. 

When Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe left for holiday in April last year with her one-year-old daughter Gabriella, she couldn’t have imagined that she would be forced into solitary confinement at one of Iran’s most notorious prisons. That for 589 days Gabriella would be separated from her mother and father, and forget how to speak English. 

And for her husband Richard, when his wife left with their little girl, he could never have imagined he would go on to spend his every waking hour retelling his wife’s story. Every sleepless night wondering if she had eaten that day. Every morning devastated that this isn’t all a horrible dream.

It’s not commonly known that your protection as a British citizen when overseas is up to the discretion of the UK government. Like most of us, Richard and Nazanin had always thought they could rely on their country to advocate for them if they were ever in danger abroad. This just isn’t the case. Before speaking out, Richard spent a month after Nazanin’s arrest trying to get the UK government to help behind closed doors. He expected what you or I might in this situation, that the government would do everything in their power to get their citizen back to safety.

The advice he had been given was “leave it to the experts and she has a better chance of being released”​​. But weeks later, having followed this advice, he saw little indication that anything was happening. He had read about how Iman Ghavami started a petition for his British Iranian sister Ghoncheh who was placed in solitary confinement for attending a men’s volleyball match. After six months of campaigning and 775,000 signatures, the public pressure helped get her released. So a month after she was arrested, Richard went public and started a petition.

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From struggling to be heard by the government, he found people who wanted to listen. When they signed in their thousands, Richard could go back to his wife and say: “We’re not alone.”​​ Richard says that when Nazanin is out, he wants to show all her all the comments that have been left on the petition, the messages of support, solidarity and hope. This is what has kept them both going during the worst 19 months of their lives. In one of his updates, Richard wrote to signers: “Your witness, your care is what gives power to my pen. It is what gives us hope. My friends can testify how poor I am at responding to messages. But my family and I read your comments closely, are kept stronger by them.”

The 1,166,478 people who signed gave Richard and Nazanin a voice when they felt voiceless. The petition levelled out the playing field. As the signatories grew, Richard’s voice became more and more prominent in the media. When the issue was debated in Parliament earlier this year, Richard urged his signers to write to their MPs. His MP, Tulip Siddiq, who has tirelessly fought her constituents’ battle since day one, has used the petition as evidence of public interest in the case to raise questions in the Commons. As our representatives, MPs need our voices to strengthen their argument when they’re debating on the bench. This family, who might not otherwise have the power and privilege to influence, this week made the foreign secretary and Prime Minister address them directly. As I write this, hundreds more are amplifying Richard’s voice by signing.

Richard has never wanted Nazanin to be used as a political pawn, here or in Iran. And though the politics of the last two weeks have helped the campaign to build momentum, it’s important to remember Richard’s fight isn’t over yet. It’s at it’s most critical stage. He is still a husband and a father who is without his wife and child. In his meetings with government ministers, every bit of support from the public is vital to strengthen his case. And every added signature rebalances the scales, so that communities like this one can be just as powerful as any political party or organisation.

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Kajal Odedra is the UK director of Change.org.