For my daughter’s second birthday, we decided to organise a family trip to the aquarium. It sounded like a good plan in theory but obviously every single family in London had the same plan in mind. There’s something about little children screaming in half-horror, half-joy at the sight of sharks that every parent wants to capture on their iPhone.
As I watched the parents rush around feeding, changing nappies and hunting for lost teddy bears, I received a text from my constituent Richard Ratcliffe, checking if I was still free to attend the Nazanin event in west Hampstead on Bank Holiday Monday. In the middle of all the chaos, I paused and started reflecting on how Richard must be spending his Easter weekend – his second Easter without his wife Nazanin and their daughter Gabriella.
Many readers will be familiar with their story. A young family torn apart when Nazanin and Gabriella decided to visit their family in Iran. Nazanin was detained and put into the notorious Evin prison on charges of overthrowing the Iranian state. For 18 months, Richard Ratcliffe and I campaigned to get Nazanin’s ordeal highlighted in the national media. We begged, pleaded and cajoled the foreign secretary for a meeting. I raised it with both prime ministers – David Cameron and Theresa May – who both expressed concern but didn’t follow up with any substantive action.
In late 2017, Boris Johnson made a grave error when giving evidence in front of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee about Nazanin’s reasons for being in Iran. Straight after this incident, the Foreign Secretary undertook a hastily organised visit to Tehran.
Though not the sole purpose of his visit, one of his priorities was to raise the case of Nazanin. After 18 months of imprisonment declared both arbitrary and illegal by the United Nations, our government finally committed to the sort of action one would expect when a citizen of theirs had been tortured abroad. The visit was an important move, and one welcomed by campaigners in good faith. Richard was particularly enthusiastic, and who could blame him? To see our country’s most senior diplomat travel thousands of miles in order to raise his wife’s case was a huge boost.
After 18 desperate months of separation. Boris Johnson’s pledge “to leave no stone unturned” when Richard and I met with him was especially pleasing. However in the months since, the trip and that unambiguous promise have produced a notable lack of progress.
After the Foreign Secretary returned from his trip, I questioned him on the floor of the House about what progress he had made on Nazanin’s case. He gave me (uncharacteristically) a politician’s non-answer. In response to my Parliamentary questions, ministerial responses now echo the language usually reserved for Brexit negotiations – “we will not be providing a running commentary on the case”.
I recognise that many may sympathise with their stance. Diplomacy is often conducted behind the scenes, and public pronouncements may be more damaging than not. However, the alleged detail of Nazanin’s latest situation means that it is unsustainable for the Foreign Office to ignore requests for public updates over why she remains detained.
In January, the judge overseeing Nazanin’s case told her directly that she remained in prison due to “a dispute over the interest rates to be paid on historic debts owed to Iran by the UK”. In other words, my constituent is apparently being used as collateral by the Iranian authorities in a bilateral dispute with our government.
This is an incendiary claim, and one that merits a public response by the UK government. Not one of my questions to the government attributes fault towards our diplomats, nor do they suggest British culpability for the disagreement over interest rates. I have merely asked whether the conversation between my constituent and her captors accurately reflects their understanding of the situation.
It is difficult to reconcile the government’s response toward requests for basic detail with the Foreign Secretary’s famous promise to leave “no stone unturned”. If British representations truly reflected his rhetoric, we would surely have seen progress in this case. At a minimum, Nazanin’s family would not feel compelled to seek urgent meetings with the Foreign Secretary to ask whether her release is still on the cards.
In light of this apparent diplomatic standoff, it is no surprise that the family has been dismayed by the Department of Trade’s renewed efforts to promote British business in Iran.Overtures range from exploring possible British mining opportunities in Iran, to the visit of an Iranian engineering delegation to London at the end of March. The family have asked how the government is ensuring that such business is safe for British citizens, and whether such links are being established with a vigour greater or equal to that being applied in the fight to securing Nazanin’s freedom.
Two years ago, Richard approached me to help with his wife’s case straight after I had my own baby and was recovering from an emergency Caesarean operation. I have previously written about how my first meeting with Richard and Jeremy Corbyn took place in my flat surrounded by nappies and sterilisers, and how challenging it was to take notes on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard whilst breastfeeding a newborn.
At the time, I remember Richard giving me advice on how the sleepless nights do get easier and how much fun it is when they take their first step. I remember Richard proudly showing me photos of baby Gabriella who now looks like a young girl. We both said that we would introduce our daughters to one another when Gabriella returns to west Hampstead.
Six months ago, I spoke to Nazanin on the phone for the first time from her prison cell in Iran. I promised her that when she’s back in the UK, we would take our daughters to Peppa Pig World. Nazanin’s case may have dropped from the headlines but I’ll leave no stone unturned to ensure that I keep that promise to my constituent.
Tulip Siddiq is the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn