I assume almost all of you have heard in the meantime about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian charity worker who is in Evin prison in Iran. One months ago, on 15 June 2019 she started a hunger strike. Her husband Richard Ratcliffe joined her and also went on hunger strike. This blog post is about their hunger strike, the support they received and what we can do to continue supporting the campaign for her release.
1. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s ordeal started more than three years ago. In March 2016 Nazanin travelled to Iran to visit her parents and to celebrate Nowruz (Iranian New Year). Nazanin went together with her daughter Gabriella who was at that time 21 months old.
On 3 April 2016, when Nazanin wanted to travel back to London and went with Gabriella to Tehran’s Iman Khomeini Airport, she was arrested by officials who were likely part of the Revolutionary Guards. Nazanin was allowed to leave her daughter in the care of her parents and was then taken by the officials.
2. She was first in Kerman prison, about 1000 km from Tehran. In mid June 2016 she was transferred to section 2-A of Evin Prison in Tehran. She spent about 130 days in solitary confinment, first in Kerman prison and then in Evin prison. At the end of December 2016 / beginning of January 2017 she was transferred to the Women’s Ward in Evin Prison.
In an unfair trial Nazanin was sentenced to five years in prison i.a. for “membership of an illegal group” in connection with her work for BBC Media Action and Thomson Reuters Foundation. The court of appeal confirmed her conviction in January 2017. In October 2017 she appeared again in court in a second case. This second case is still open and with it the threat of even more years in prison.
3. Nazanin developed several health problems and went in January 2019 on a three day hunger strike to protest against the lack of medical care. United Nations human rights experts published a statement on 16 January about the denial of medical treatment for Nazanin and for Narges Mohammadi, another prisoner of conscience:
“Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual UK-Iranian national, has been denied appropriate health care by the Iranian authorities for lumps in her breasts, severe neck pain, and numbness in her arms and legs, her husband has said. She has also been denied appropriate mental health care from outside Evin Prison. “
The experts urged Iran to give Nazanin and Narges access to appropriate medical care and also called for their release.
Nazanin still has not received sufficient access to medical care. A few days ago (10 July) the UN human rights experts published another statement. They expressed in particular concern for Arash Sadeghi who suffers from a rare form of bone cancer and does not receive medical care. They also mentioned the lack of medical attention for two dual nationals Ahmadreza Djalali and Kamran Ghaderi. Regarding Nazanin and Narges they said:
“Two women, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Narges Mohammadi, whose health concerns were detailed in a January 2019 public statement,** have also continued to be denied appropriate healthcare.”
II. Hunger Strike
1. One months ago, on 15 June Nazanin’s husband Richard announced that he had a call from her and that she has begun a new hunger strike to protest her continuing unfair imprisonment.
Richard decided to join her in her hunger strike and began a “continual vigil in front of the Iranian Embassy”. He said that he will also not eat and continue with the hunger strike as long as she continues.
His demands were the following:
“I vowed last time that if she ever went on hunger strike again, we would not leave her to go through this ordeal alone. My requests to the Iranian authorities for my fast are:
1. For Nazanin’s immediate release.
2. For an immediate visit to Nazanin by the British Embassy to check on her health – after 3 years it is an outrage this continues to be blocked by Iran.
3. If no release is granted to her in the next few weeks, a visa for me to go to Iran.”
2. Richard mentioned in his announcement that he will “perhaps occasionally [be] joined by friends and family”. I think during the two weeks of hunger strike there was not much time, if any at all, when he was not joined by others.
One of Richard’s family members – his parents, his brothers and his sister and their partners – was almost always with him outside in front of the Iranian Embassy – stayed with him during the day or slept there during the night in one of a few small tents. But there were many more visitors, friends, supporters of the Free Nazanin campaign, but also strangers who lived close by and visited him or had heard about Nazanin and the hunger strike and had decided to travel to the Iranian Embassy. Some travelled a considerable distance to see him. Some came once to show their support, others visited him several times. There were also many Iranians who came and visited Richard, some with their own stories of unfair imprisonment.
There were many actions and events organised by Amnesty International, including a candle light vigil at which we read Haikus as well as poems written by Nazanin and other women in Evin prison. At another afternoon session, peope painted stones. There were also two occasions on which supporters sung “Songs for Nazanin”. Here are a few photos:
3. During the two weeks on hunger strike there were also many notable visitors. Many people had written to their MPs and asked them to visit Richard at the embassy. There were more than 100 MPs who made their way to South Kensington to show their support. They were from all parties and included Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the opposition, Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Penny Mordaunt, Secretary of State for Defence (Conservatives), John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, Ian Blackford, Leader of SNP in Westminster, Tom Brake (Liberal Democrats), Caroline Lucas (Green Party) and many others. There were not only MPs who visited Richard, but also other politicians, like Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, and many councillors.
There was also a lot of interest of the media in his hunger strike with many journalists visiting Richard for an interview. During this time, there were numerous articles in all major UK newspapers, but also reporters from different broadcasting companies came and made interviews. Not only UK media was interested, but also international media.
If you follow this link you can watch a short report which the German TV (Das Erste) made for their “Morgenmagazin” (morning TV programme).
Richard received even letters and postcards which were addressed at “Tent outside the Iranian Embassy”.
4. The Iranian Embassy was not pleased with the huge attention the hunger strike received. The ambassador complained that their door was blocked and that the media attention meant that everyone who entered or left the embassy would be filmed what they considered to be unacceptable. They also decided that the railing in front of the embassy needed painting or at least cleaning and erected metal screens to block the view to the embassy. It was interesting to see the reaction of the embassy. They behaved very similar to the Bahraini Embassy last year when Ali Mushaima went on hunger strike to get medical care for his father who is in prison in Bahrain and slept on the pavement in front of the embassy.
Ultimately the Iranian Embassy could not really do anything against the protest. In my opinion the best symbol for the futility of their endeavours was the fate of the metal screen. The screen developed into a message board. At the end of the hunger strike it was full of post-it notes, letters, newspaper articles and other tokens of support.
4. On Saturday, 29 June, Richard Ratcliffe received a call from Nazanin in which she told him that she ended her hunger strike. He announced then the end of his hunger strike. Richard did a daily short video clip and here is the clip on day 15 of their hunger strike which includes this announcement.
III. What we can do to continue to support the campaign
The two weeks of Nazanin’s and Richard’s hunger strike resulted in an incredible level of support for them. I mentioned above how many MPs, friends and supporters came and showed their solidarity with them. There were even a considerable number of MPs who wore “Free Nazanin” badges during Prime Minister Questions.
However as the time passes there will be other topics which will get headlines and there is a risk that people forget that Nazanin is still in prison and that there is still a family separated by thousands of kilometres and by prison walls.
There are a couple of things you can do to help:
1. There are two petitions for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. The Change.org petition has already more than 2.3 million signatures, but maybe you know someone who has not yet sign this petition. Ask them to do so and please also share the petition online and offline. There is also a comparatively new petition from Amnesty International. This petition has currently more than 200,000 signatures. Please also sign and share this petition.
2. Please write to the Iranian authorities and demand Nazanin’s release. Gulf Centre for Human Rights published recently an appeal for Nazanin, but also for two other women who are prisoners of conscience in Iran: Nasrin Sotoudeh and Narges Mohammadi. You can find more information in that appeal, in particular if you are not sure what you should write to the the Iranian authorities.
3. You can also write to the Iranian Ambassador in London. Here is a template for a message (you can obviously omit the last paragraph)
4. Please also write to your MP. If they visited Richard at the Embassy, then thank them for their support. Please ask them in any case to follow up what is done by UK to get Nazanin released.
6. REDRESS is another human rights organisation which has also campaigned for a long time for Nazanin. They launched recently a Justgiving website and ask people for donations. They try to raise £15,000 to continue their “legal and advocacy work on Nazanin’s case, and cases like hers”. Please consider giving a donation.
I wrote this blog post, because I want to encourage you to help to make sure that the momentum which developed during the hunger strike is kept and that people don’t forget about this family. Please continue to support Nazanin, Richard and Gabriella until Nazanin is finally released and they are all reunited at their home in London.