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22 June 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 3:18am

“Brexit has been very bad for our case”: Richard Ratcliffe on hunger strike

By Anoosh Chakelian

Richard Ratcliffe hasn’t eaten for 14 days. I meet him on day 11 of his hunger strike, camping outside the Iranian Embassy in central London, just off Hyde Park. The Iranian flag hangs over his cluster of fold-out garden chairs, three rows of tents and painted umbrellas reading: “FREE NAZANIN”.

His wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, has been wrongly detained in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison for three years. A British-Iranian dual citizen, she was arrested at the airport in Tehran after a holiday visiting family in 2016, when she was about to fly back to the UK with her then 22-month-old daughter Gabriella. She has since been sentenced to five years on charges of plotting against the Iranian government.

Wearing black waterproof trousers and a turquoise t-shirt, with a yellow raincoat tied around his waist, Richard Ratcliffe is upbeat. At first, he felt hungry and had headaches, he tells me, but then his “body adjusted”. He tells me he’s become “slower-witted, and crankier” and tires earlier in the day – “like being old, I suppose”.

He has pink around his hooded eyes, and the skin on his cheeks is cracked and red, like he’s permanently blushing. He speaks almost in a whisper, though he buoys himself up with water and peppermint tea. He’s received 19 boxes of the latter from well-wishers.

Denied a visa, he hasn’t seen his wife or daughter, who is living with her maternal grandparents in Iran in order to visit her mother, since 2016.

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Ratcliffe is refusing to eat in tandem with his wife’s third hunger strike. “I spoke to her yesterday; she was still quite determined to carry on. She’s doing it to make a point that that’s enough,” he tells me, sitting on a chair surrounded by flowers from supporters – mostly British Iranians. “Clearly we have managed to annoy the authorities.”

He tells me Nazanin is “low”, but “determined” not to be bullied. When she decides to end her hunger strike, her husband will follow suit. In the meantime, thousands of visitors, journalists and politicians have come to visit him. He has a family member to keep an eye on him at all times. When I visit, his sister Becca is almost like a press officer – fielding visitors, taking photos.

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The night before we meet, Jeremy Corbyn visited with his wife and stayed chatting for 40 minutes. On Wednesday in Parliament, Labour frontbenchers wore the distinctive turquoise “#FreeNazanin” flower badges at PMQs.

A patchwork of post-its, cards, photos and messages are pasted all over the metal barrier erected by the Embassy during his protest: a defiant splash of colour jarring with the white stucco façade and portico entrance. The postman brings letters of encouragement to his temporary new home every day.

They recently Skyped his daughter, who has just turned five, for a singalong from the Disney film Frozen.

“She’s ok, she understands that mummy and daddy are on hunger strike, and that means mummy and daddy drink but don’t eat – those are the rules, don’t worry about it,” Ratcliffe smiles.

When she saw his tent, she was excited by the idea of a family camping trip one day.

They are trying to be heard over increasingly hostile rhetoric exchanged by the US and Iran. After imposing fresh sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Donald Trump threatened “obliteration” if “anything American” was attacked; Iran shot down a US drone last week, and had previously announced it would resume nuclear enrichment activities.

“The more tension there is in Iran, the harder it is for a simple solution for us, and the tension has increased hugely in the last two weeks,” says Ratcliffe. “Even after three years, my reading of Iranian politics is confused, I find it’s very volatile and mixed messages come out – and to be honest, that’s also true of American politics at the moment.”

British politics too has hindered his family’s situation, he feels.

“I think generally the consequence of Brexit and the turmoil that has been British politics for the last three years has been very bad for our case, as it has been for many other issues because it’s just taken up the bandwidth of parliament and the media,” he says. “Things have been allowed to linger, which should have been solved a long time ago.”

Whoever becomes Britain’s next Prime Minister will be poignant to the Ratcliffe family’s story. As former and current foreign secretaries, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have both been involved in trying to secure Nazanin’s release.

When Johnson was in the role, he erroneously told a select committee hearing that Nazanin has been “simply teaching people journalism” in Iran, which both her family and employer deny.

This remark was used at a court hearing three days later as so-called proof she was engaged in “propaganda against the regime”.

Ratcliffe recently said Johnson’s words have been used against his wife “ever since”.

Pressed about this blunder during the BBC Tory leadership debate, Johnson claimed his words “didn’t, I think, make any difference”.

“I think it’s important that you take responsibility for your mistakes, and he clearly made a mistake, clearly struggled to apologise for it, and he did other things that then made things more complicated,” Ratcliffe says. “It is absolutely essential that a prime minister takes responsibility for the country, and an inability to acknowledge mistakes is not a good sign.”

Ratcliffe is also frustrated with the Foreign Office’s approach to this case, and other unfairly detained British citizens abroad.

“The instincts from the British Foreign Office – but, to be fair, the EU as well – is to sort of go softly, softly and almost misrecognise what’s going on,” he says. “There is a real policy challenge there about sending a message to them and holding the Iranian authorities to account… it needs to be a reaffirmation of the norm that we don’t take each other’s citizens.

“You look to the British government to protect you,” he adds. “I fully accept this is a very complicated task, but I’ve always felt the Foreign Office has been too soft, and not willing to call out Iran for its abuses of British citizens.”

Ratcliffe recalls watching Johnson as Foreign Secretary talking about Iran, “and about five times he reaffirmed UK government, UK corporate interests – not once was there a commitment to the UK nationals held in prison, or human rights in general. That, I think, is symptomatic of human rights [being] treated as a nice-to-have”.

He accuses the UK of “a clear privileging of business and trade opportunities and business priorities”, and sees “a sluggishness on the part of the sort of ‘friends of Iran’ business community to acknowledge how critical cases like ours are”.

As we speak, visitors from Ireland bring him a wooden cross to hold, and activists mill around with MPs and their advisers, signing a visitor’s book – which is completed in the hour that I’m there.

“It’s been a very positive experience as well as difficult,” Ratcliffe tells me, his voice barely audible above the sirens and roars of the road opposite. “I’m deeply appreciative of everyone who’s come along to share their stories, and just turned up for a better tomorrow – a better tomorrow in Iran and a better tomorrow in the UK.”