South Wales Echo

‘I can’t explain to my 10-year-old why people are so cruel to his Aunty Nazanin’

- CATHY OWEN Reporter cathy.owen@walesonlin­

REBECCA Ratcliffe has been demoted from her role as favourite auntie, but she couldn’t be happier.

The Cwmbran GP is delighted to be able to pass on that honour to her sister-in-law, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

The new role was bestowed upon her when the whole family were reunited amid happy scenes two days after Nazanin sensationa­lly returned to the UK after being released from six years of captivity in Iran.

“We met up last Saturday with all the family and it was lovely,” said Rebecca.

“It was amazing, the sun was shining and we were out in the garden, just chatting and loving being able to spend time together again.

“To have that first hug with Nazanin was a really special moment.”

That hug was the culminatio­n of six years of campaignin­g by Nazanin’s family back in the UK, six long years after she was imprisoned on April 3, 2016, and accused of spying by the Iranian government – charges she has consistent­ly denied.

Many believe, in reality, Nazanin was beign used as political football over a long-standing £400m debt, owed by the UK to Iran.

She was detained with her young daughter, Gabriella, at an airport in Tehran as they planned to return to Britain.

Her frantic family back in the UK were advised by the Foreign Office at the time not to go public, but after speaking with the families of other people who had been detained in the country, Rebecca’s brother decided to speak out.

And so began years of campaignin­g. “We really didn’t know what to do for the best,” recalls Rebecca. “But Richard spoke to many people who had been in a similar position and they said they had regretted staying silent, so he took the decision to go public.

“That was his decision, but I had to make my own mind up and I thought about my job as a GP and how I knew a lot of people in the community, so I might be able to help out in some way by highlighti­ng what was happening, and I don’t regret going public.

“I got in touch with the local media and went public in May 2016.

“There was immediatel­y a lot of support from people in South Wales.

“We had a lot of support on social media too, and on the first anniversar­y of Nazanin’s arrest, we held an event in Cardiff to raise awareness and it was one of the best attended demonstrat­ions that we ever organised.

“Three choirs joined us on the day, and it was the first time that we managed to attract awareness from the mainstream media.

“The support we had here in Wales was integral, it meant that is wasn’t just about a family from north London, it made it a UK-wide issue.”

The family don’t regret for a moment making their story public because every time there were headlines in the

UK, Rebecca said conditions for

Nazanin in Iran improved.

And reports in local Welsh media were even read out at an important trial hearing.

“I don’t think the judge realised that it was not in the national news of the UK,” says Rebecca.

“But at one of the trials, a judge had read a report from a Welsh newspaper about the campaign and it was read out in court.

“It just showed the power of the local media, and meant that Nazanin could hear and knew that she had family here in the UK fighting for her release. It was really important that she knew that she had something back in the UK, something to fight for.

“When she was first arrested they tried to destroy her faith in her old life. They would tell her that no-one cared any more. We had to redress that, and make sure that she knew her husband, daughter and UK family were here for her.”

There were many ups and downs for the family over the six years of Nazanin’s imprisonme­nt, many times they were given false hope, only to have their hopes dashed. So when they heard through the media that she had been given back her passport, they were not going to believe it until the 44-year-old was in the air and on her way back home. But this time the UK Government agreed to pay off the 40-year-old £400m debt to Iran, and the mother-of-one was on her way home within hours.

“It still hasn’t sunk in,” laughed Rebecca, who stayed after moving to Wales to studying medicine.

“We had heard reports her passport had been given back, but that had happened before, so we didn’t truly believe it until she was in the air and Richard and Gabrielle were on their way to the

airport to meet her. Seeing that footage of her touching down and in the arms of Richard and Gabrielle, it was really overwhelmi­ng.

“It feels a bit like Christmas morning and waiting for Santa and then Santa finally arriving.

“Six years we had been hoping for that moment and it was really quite a joyous and emotional moment for everyone.”

While the Zaghari-Ratcliffe family were reunited and spending time together away from the spotlight, Rebecca agreed to a number of interviews on national television to take some of the pressure off her brother.

“It was something I could do to help,” she explained. “It was such an intense time, and it wasn’t fair to him to handle it on his own.

“He had to concentrat­e on his family’s needs, and they needed to be able to process what was happening, so being able to support and take some of the pressure off by agreeing to the interviews was my way of being able to help in a small way.

“We all had an overwhelmi­ng need to be able to help them, and that is what I could do to show how much I cared.”

After the family had had the weekend to reunite, Nazanin and Richard spoke to the media at an organised press conference at the House of Commons last week.

But Downing Street had to condemn critics who accused her of being “ungrateful” after she expressed frustratio­n with the UK government for taking an agonising six years to secure her release.

Nazanin faced abuse on social media for saying it should not have taken so

To have that first hug with Nazanin was a really special moment

Rebecca Ratcliffe

long for ministers to ensure she returned home safely.

“It was difficult to know how to handle that backlash,” admitted Rebecca.

“Do you walk away, or call it out for what it was, an attack on a traumatise­d woman?”

Rebecca documented on Twitter how she had had to comfort her 10-year-old child after they heard people criticisin­g their aunt on a live television news show.

“The press conference was Nazanin’s chance to speak out about how it had taken six years to resolve something that would have been easy to resolve, and she had every right to say she wasn’t happy about it,” said Rebecca.

“We have had backlash before, and this was like a very quick, and orchestrat­ed attack, but Nazanin has a loving and supportive family, and the criticism is nothing compared to what she went through during the start of her captivity.”

Now the family are looking forward to enjoying more days together.

“It was especially great for my mum and dad,” said Rebecca.

“There was so much stress and strain on them seeing their son, daughter-inlaw and grandchild suffering. They cannot find it in their hearts to forgive either government, but they are looking forward to retiring now and spending time with their family.

“It has been a big stress on everyone, and we were worried about Nazanin’s parents back in Iran, but they are just delighted that their daughter had been reunited with her daughter.

“I have also been relegated from the role of favourite auntie, but I can live with that.”

 ?? GAYLE MARSH ?? Rebecca Ratcliffe who campaigned for six years to have her sister-in-law Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe released from prison in Iran
GAYLE MARSH Rebecca Ratcliffe who campaigned for six years to have her sister-in-law Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe released from prison in Iran
 ?? WPA POOL ?? Nazanin and husband Richard – Rebecca’s brother – at a press conference following her release from detention in Iran
WPA POOL Nazanin and husband Richard – Rebecca’s brother – at a press conference following her release from detention in Iran

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