Brief taste of freedom for British mother in Iran
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