Brief taste of free­dom for Bri­tish mother in Iran

The Daily Telegraph - - Front Page - By Robert Men­dick Chief Re­porter and Samer al-atrush in Cairo

NAZANIN ZAGHARI-RAT­CLIFFE was still in her night­clothes when the news she dared not be­lieve came through.

Af­ter more than two years in prison, the Bri­tish-ira­nian mother, whose in­car­cer­a­tion caused international out­rage, was given 10 min­utes to get dressed and get out.

The Ira­nian au­thor­i­ties, giv­ing vir­tu­ally no no­tice, yes­ter­day al­lowed Mrs Zaghari-rat­cliffe three days of free­dom to spend with her daugh­ter Gabriella, aged four. The child was just 22 months old when Mrs Zaghari-rat­cliffe last had the op­por­tu­nity to spend time with her.

For 72 hours only she was given that pre­cious chance again.

“The thought of brush­ing her hair, and giv­ing her a bath. Of be­ing able to take her to the park, and feed her, and sleep next to her – it just kills me. It is still so hard to be­lieve,” said Mrs Zaghari-rat­cliffe in a state­ment re­leased by her hus­band, Richard Rat­cliffe. She told how it was “just awe­some for Gabriella to have mummy home fi­nally” and how they “can play with her dolls house, and she can show me her toys”.

Pho­to­graphs re­leased by the fam­ily showed the mother cud­dling her daugh­ter, both smil­ing and laugh­ing for the cam­eras while clutch­ing brightly coloured flow­ers that had been picked from the gar­den by Gabriella in an­tic­i­pa­tion of her mother’s ar­rival.

Their joy in the pho­to­graphs was over­whelm­ing, but in three days – un­less lawyers can suc­cess­fully ar­gue her case – Mrs Zaghari-rat­cliffe, 40, will be re­turned to jail, sep­a­rated once more from Gabriella.

The last time they were pic­tured to­gether in pub­lic, Gabriella was a tod­dler, grow­ing up in Lon­don. More than two years on, she is with her grand­par­ents in Tehran while her mother lan­guishes in the lo­cal Evin jail on trumped-up spy­ing charges.

Mrs Zaghari-rat­cliffe, who works for the char­ity Thomson Reuters Foun­da­tion, was ar­rested at Tehran air­port af­ter vis­it­ing her fam­ily for a hol­i­day.

The prospect of the tem­po­rary re­lease, de­scribed as a fur­lough, was first raised by the Ira­nian au­thor­i­ties a fort­night ago but Mrs Zaghari-rat­cliffe kept it quiet from her daugh­ter.

“I wasn’t ex­pect­ing it at all when it was men­tioned two weeks ago,” she said. “I didn’t tell Gabriella or, for a long time, my mum – so if it didn’t hap­pen I would be the only one to suf­fer.”

“I was so emo­tional to see my grand­mother to­day. I cried so much. I felt so over­whelmed. My dad’s home is not my home – but it is so much bet­ter than prison. Peo­ple in the ward were so ex­cited – they sang songs and danced. It felt like this re­ally could be

‘I didn’t tell Gabriella or for a long time my mum – so if it didn’t hap­pen I would be the only one to suf­fer’

the be­gin­ning of the end.” Her Bri­tish hus­band re­mained in Lon­don, un­able to visit his wife. He has worked tire­lessly for her re­lease and told how the fur­lough had given re­newed hope.

“We are re­ally ex­cited,” said Mr Rat­cliffe. “We’ve had this break­through and who knows where it will lead?

“It’s only for three days, which is stan­dard when some­one is re­leased on fur­lough, but we will ap­ply for some more time and hope­fully it’s the be­gin­ning of the end.”

He was called at 6.45am yes­ter­day by his wife from the car tak­ing her from jail to Da­ma­vand, 50 miles east of Evin, where Gabriella and her par­ents and grand­mother were on hol­i­day. When she ar­rived they spoke via Skype.

“She was full of joy and ex­cite­ment. It was the first I’d seen of her in a long time and it was lovely to see her look­ing much hap­pier,” said Mr Rat­cliffe. “Gabriella was busy show­ing Nazanin her dolls house. Gabriella said, ‘Mummy, you look older than in the pho­to­graphs’. She looked thin­ner but in good health.”

Mr Rat­cliffe, 43, point­edly thanked Jeremy Hunt, the For­eign Sec­re­tary, for “all his ef­forts”. Boris John­son, his pre­de­ces­sor, had to apol­o­gise last Novem­ber when he sug­gested Mrs Zaghari-rat­cliffe had been in Iran for work, teach­ing journalism, rather than on hol­i­day. The er­ror had threat­ened to in­crease her five-year jail term.

Mr Hunt tweeted yes­ter­day: “Re­ally good news that Nazanin has been re­leased on fur­lough, credit to tire­less cam­paign­ing by hus­band Richard and her friends. But be­ing in prison at all is gross in­jus­tice and she must be per­ma­nently re­leased, for which ev­ery ef­fort will con­tinue.”

The run-up to her tem­po­rary re­lease had been fraught and in doubt un­til the last minute. Prose­cu­tors vis­ited the fam­ily home and in­spected it, us­ing the ti­tle deeds in lieu of $100,000 surety.

On Tues­day, Mrs Zaghari-rat­cliffe’s fam­ily were told to go to the jail and await her re­lease in time for Eid, cel­e­brated in Iran on Wed­nes­day. But her brother waited in vain; the prom­ise an empty one.

Then, early yes­ter­day, Mrs Zaghar­irat­cliffe was sum­moned by prison au­thor­i­ties and told she had 10 min­utes to pack. She was searched, taken from her ward and re­leased at the main gates.

She was told she was not al­lowed to wait out­side the jail for her fam­ily, who were dash­ing from Da­ma­vand to Tehran. They or­dered her to cross a bridge and wait to be picked up. She bor­rowed a mo­bile phone from a stranger to in­form her brother she had been set free.

Mrs Zaghari-rat­cliffe’s re­lease is con­di­tional on her not giv­ing me­dia in­ter­views and not vis­it­ing any em­bassy, in par­tic­u­lar the Bri­tish em­bassy. She is due to re­turn to prison on Sun­day.

Mrs Zaghari-rat­cliffe was ar­rested in April 2016 by Iran’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard as she and her daugh­ter were due to board a plane back to Lon­don, ac­cused of at­tempt­ing to or­ches­trate the “soft” over­throw of the regime.

Ira­nian ex­perts sug­gested the re­lease was use­ful to Iran at a time it was fac­ing mount­ing crit­i­cism, although it was un­clear if it paved the way for her to be al­lowed back to Lon­don.

Ali Fathol­lah-ne­jad, an Iran ex­pert and vis­it­ing fel­low at the Brook­ings Doha Cen­tre, said: “The regime faces a lot of pres­sure, in­side and out­side. Her re­lease can cre­ate pos­i­tive head­lines in the West, a breath­ing spell from con­demn­ing cov­er­age in the West. Hamid Baei­dine­jad, Iran’s am­bas­sador in Lon­don, posted on­line the pho­to­graph of the re­union, adding: “Lovely pic­ture.”

Nazanin Zaghari-rat­cliffe is re­united with her daugh­ter Gabriella, now four

One of the last pic­tures to be taken of Mrs Zaghar­irat­cliffe and her daugh­ter in 2016, be­fore her ar­rest

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