A new trial of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian dual national detained in Iran for the past four years, has been postponed at the last minute.
Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, confirmed the news, which came as a surprise to both his wife and her London-based family. Her MP, Tulip Sidiq, said Zaghari-Ratcliffe was relieved but also frustrated, angry and stressed.
The Labour MP added: “Once again she is being used as a bargaining chip.”
Zaghari-Ratcliffe contacted the prosecutor’s office and her lawyer on Sunday morning after the official car due to take her to court did not arrive at her home. She was subsequently told by her lawyer the case would not be going ahead on Sunday. Her family said it had no reason to believe this was anything but a postponement on what is being described as a gruesome game of cat and mouse.
Zagahri-Ratcliffe had suddenly found herself facing a second round of charges in a Tehran revolutionary court that could lead to her being imprisoned for up to a further 10 years. Her lawyer has been given less than a week to prepare her defence.
Zagahri-Ratcliffe has been staying at her parents’ home in Tehran with an ankle tag that requires her to stay within 300 metres of the residence. Her six-year-old daughter is living in London with her father.
It is not known if private British diplomatic representations led to the postponement, but such delays are frequent in the Iranian legal system. Her fate has always seemed linked to wider UK-Iranian relations.
She was released from Evin prison in Tehran in March after coronavirus swept through Iranian jails, and she believed she had subsequently met the criteria for full release as previously pronounced by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’’s family have urged the UK Foreign Office to demand that its Tehran-based diplomats be allowed to observe proceedings in court, but Iran does not recognise dual national status and has consistently deprived her of consular support.
The previous foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, elevated her status by giving her diplomatic protection in March 2019, but it is hard to see what practical difference this has had on her plight.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was due to complete her five-year jail sentence next spring and the family had always feared the Iranian regime would bring new charges. The second round of charges was first raised in October 2017, but was then apparently dropped in 2018. She said the new case against her did not appear to contain any new evidence to that compiled by the prosecutors previously.
Relations between the Foreign Office and Richard Ratcliffe have been tense due to his decision to campaign in public for her release, a tactic that officials fear is unproductive. He in turn points to the comparative success of more proactive approaches taken by other countries in securing the release of their dual nationals.
Speculation surrounds the reasoning behind Iran’s decision to levy the charges now, and then postpone the case. Redress, the legal campaign group that is working to free Zaghari-Ratcliffe, said: “Nazanin is the only case in Iran for which a supreme leader’s order from 17 March 2020 granting clemency to her and thousands of other prisoners has not been implemented, marking her out as a unique prisoner.
“She is the only known prisoner who was released on furlough in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic with an ankle tag and has had to wear it for many more months than the customary 60 days for similar cases”.
The charges were levied days after the UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace, wrote to the family’s lawyers confirming he believed the UK government owed a financial debt to the Iranian government arising from a 50-year-old arms contract. He added efforts were continuing to make the payment without breaching sanctions.
The Iranian ministry of defence then accused the UK of making excuses for refusing to pay the sum. Both the UK and the Iranian governments say there is no link between the outstanding debt and the continued detention of Zaghari-Ratcliffe. A further UK court hearing on the debt is due on 4 November.
Her case may also be intertwined with the standoff between the west and Iran over the fate of the nuclear deal signed in 2015, and the lifting of the UN embargo on conventional arms sales to Iran that is due to occur in October. The US is also claiming it has the powers to require the UN to impose its previous sanctions on Iran on the basis Iran is in breach of the 2015 deal. The UK has joined France and Germany in resisting this US interpretation, and the issue will come to a head at the UN general assembly over the next fortnight
A planned trip to Europe by the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, rumoured to take place next week, has been deferred, the Iranian foreign ministry said, citing practical difficulties of such a trip in the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak.
Iran is already facing an international outcry over the execution on Saturday of Navid Afkari, a 27-year-old Olympic wrestler, who was found guilty of killing a security guard during protests in August 2018. He said the confession was extracted under torture, and had been seeking to raise money to offer compensation to the guard’s family.