For the JN by Jenni Frazer Nov 8 2021
Two Jewish women, TV presenters Victoria Coren Mitchell and Claudia Winkleman, have been lending support to Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Iranian hostage Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, as he pursues a life-threatening hunger strike in central London. This week he asked the Jewish community to lend its backing to the campaign to free his wife.
On Friday — day 13 of his strike — Mr Ratcliffe was visibly suffering, sitting swathed in woollen hats, scarves and gloves, in a makeshift “camp” opposite the Foreign Office in Whitehall. Behind him were thin pop-up tents and blankets, little defence against the increasingly cold weather.
Richard Ratcliffe’s wife, Nazanin, has served five years in an Iranian prison and may now face a further year behind bars in Teheran, though at present she is at her parents’ home in the Iranian capital. She was arrested at Teheran Airport in April 2016 and imprisoned in September of that year after being found guilty of “plotting to overthrow the Iranian government”, and spying, charges which she has consistently and vehemently denied.
Mr Ratcliffe and his family maintain that his wife is being held as ransom for £450 million, money owed by the British government to Iran over a cancelled arms deal when the Shah fell from power in 1979. Nazanin, who was working as a project manager for the Reuters news agency when she was first seized by the Iranian regime, has joint British and Iranian nationality. He has implored Britain to pay the money if that is what it takes to free his wife.
This is Richard Ratcliffe’s second hunger strike — his first, undertaken in parallel with his wife, was held in 2019 outside London’s Iranian Embassy. The couple both ended that fast after 15 days, said to be the “make-or-break” time by which serious damage can be done to the hunger striker. Mr Ratcliffe’s sister Rebecca is a GP and is monitoring her brother’s vital signs, but it is clear even on a brief visit that he is getting progressively weaker. His speech is slow and soft, not helped by the whirr of helicopter blades above Whitehall as police and security forces prepared for a separate central London demonstration.
Mr Ratcliffe, whose seven-year-old daughter Gabriella, and other members of his family, including his mother, are usually on hand to support him, admitted that “the longer my fast goes on the more dangerous it gets. The textbook cut-off time is 15 days. At 25 days, it can be fatal”.
But he is determined to do whatever he can to raise awareness of his wife’s plight, and has camped opposite the Foreign Office, together with hourly walks around the corner to Downing Street, to remind the government of the issue. He accused the government of “a kind of complacency” and of “not being willing to challenge Iran or say exactly what the problem is” in negotiating with the regime for Nazanin’s freedom.
Speaking to the Jewish News, he said he had had a meeting with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss before starting his hunger strike on October 29, but declared the content “policy-light” and said the government had consistently failed to follow up its words with concrete actions.
He also deplored the “relentless psychological abuse” exercised by Iran, in attempting to suggest that Nazanin would be freed and then “playing cat and mouse” by threatening her with renewed prison time. “It is the constant messing with your head that is so terrible”, he said. “It is completely capricious behaviour, and you get your hopes up only to have them dashed”.
Mr Ratcliffe, in asking for support from the Jewish community for his wife, said he believed Anglo-Jewry was only too aware of what he called “hostage diplomacy” and the way that some states used “ordinary people” in that regard. “Other states are watching and copying this behaviour, and it is a threat to the world”, he said. He felt that the Jewish community “was alive to the behaviour of illiberal states and their danger”.
As he spoke to the Jewish News, a constant stream of passers-by and well-wishers stopped to speak to him. People bring gifts: the blanket over his knees had come from one visitor, the thick scarf from another. Comedian Bill Bailey had turned up with a pair of gloves. Many of his visitors wanted to know if there was somewhere they could donate money — and there is, through REDRESS, whose lawyers are working on the Ratcliffes’ behalf.
Amnesty International, meanwhile, have designated Nazanin a Prisoner of Conscience, and calls for her release have been made by the European Parliament, the US Congress, the Canadian Parliament and the United Nations.