THE Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, has urged the Government to repay its £400-million debt to Iran and take immediate action to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from imprisonment in the country.
Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was first jailed in Iran five years ago for crimes including plotting the overthrow of the Iranian government, lost her appeal against a second prison sentence, and was ordered to return to prison for another year, with a further year of a travel ban (News, 30 April). Her physical and mental health continues to decline.
Last Friday, her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, ended a 21-day hunger-strike outside the Foreign Office, which he had undertaken to persuade the Government to obtain his wife’s release (News, 5 November). He said: “Today I have promised Nazanin to end the hunger strike. Gabriella [the couple’s daughter] needs two parents.”
Britain owes Iran £400 million in an acknowledged historical debt over the purchase of Challenger tanks, but argues that sanctions forbid its payment. It emerged on Monday that Mr Ratcliffe’s MP, Tulip Siddiq, had been told by parliamentary clerks not to mention the debt during the debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday afternoon. It is widely assumed that the debt is linked to the continued detainment of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
On Monday, Dr Francis-Dehqani, who was born in Iran and whose family sought refuge in Britain when she was a teenager (News, 14 July 2017), wrote to MPs in her diocese: “The Government in this country risks coming into disrepute over this dreadful affair, and it is now time for action. Regardless of the human-rights abuses of the Iranian government, which I have experienced first-hand, and regardless of all the rights and wrongs of the British Government’s handling of the situation so far, Britain owes a debt which should be paid, and if it is not going to be paid then we should know the reason why.
“Several senior politicians on both sides of the House, including former Foreign Secretaries, are saying the same thing, and I’m writing to ask you to consider speaking out in this vein in the debate on Tuesday.”
She continued: “This innocent family, along with several others, are caught up in a situation not of their own making. The British Government has it in its power to pay this debt and bring a terrible affair to a positive conclusion. Surely, the time for prevarication is over and we must now see concrete action.”
On Monday, the group Free Nazanin commented: “By refusing to refer to Nazanin as British and refusing either to settle its debt or challenge Iran’s hostage-taking — this is precisely what government policy is accepting — that Nazanin continues to be held as leverage as she approaches her sixth Christmas away from her family.”
During the debate, Ms Siddiq told the Government that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been told of the link between the debt and her detainment during her imprisonment, and that there was clear evidence to support this connection. She said afterwards: “The UK loses the moral high ground if we don’t fulfil our legal obligation to pay the historic debt from four decades ago that we owe Iran. My plea to the Prime Minister is to pay the debt and negotiate the return of my constituent.”
On Wednesday, the Revd Jonathan Kester, who is the Vicar of the family’s parish church, Emmanuel Church, West Hampstead, in north-west London, thanked MPs for their contributions to the debate. “We long for Nazanin to be reunited with Richard and Gabriella in our local community of West Hampstead.”
Read more on the story from Paul Vallely