Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British charity worker being held in Iran on spying charges, has been granted exceptionally rare diplomatic protection by the UK government in an attempt to secure her release.
The decision escalates Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case from a consular matter to a formal legal dispute between Britain and Iran and one that Jeremy Hunt, Foreign Secretary, said on Thursday was “not made lightly”.
Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual British-Iranian national from Hampstead, north London, has been in prison in Tehran since 2016 after being sentenced to five-and-a-half-years for espionage – charges she has denied.
In that time the mother-of-one has been denied access to her lawyer as well as to medical treatment, despite suffering a number of mental and physical health complaints.
Her continued imprisonment has worsened already-strained relations between the two countries.
Diplomatic protection is a rarely-used mechanism through which a state can seek protection on behalf of one of its nationals if it believes they have been wronged by another state.
The UK has not used it in recent memory.
"UK Govt’s extension of diplomatic protection to Ms Zaghari contravenes int’l law. Govts may only exercise such protection for own nationals," Hamid Baeidinejad, Iran’s ambassador in London, said on Twitter.
"As (the) UK Govt is acutely aware, Iran does not recognize dual nationality. Irrespective of UK residency, Ms Zaghari thus remains Iranian," Baeidinejad added.
Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who had been working for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested in April 2016 at Tehran airport when she and her then 22-month-old daughter, Gabriella, were about to return to the UK after a family visit.
During her subsequent trial, she was accused of running “a BBC Persian online journalism course” and seeking a “soft overthrow” of Iran.
Human rights lawyers have previously said the “grave harm” she has suffered during her detention at Evin prison made her eligible for diplomatic protection.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said Iran’s refusal to provide treatment for Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is complaining of lumps in her breasts, was “arbitrary and unlawful” and may amount to torture.
They said her rights to a fair trial had also been violated.
There are concerns hardliners in Iran, which has accused Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe of working with the British government, could see the move as proof of the alleged collusion.
“It is good that the UK is standing up so clearly for Nazanin,” her husband, Richard, told the Telegraph last night. “I am not sure about Iran’s reaction, but I don’t think they will be surprised.
“Two foreign secretaries have been out to try to solve her case, an ambassador has been summoned, and plenty of promises have been made but not delivered on. Particularly the continuing lack of health treatment. So it is time to signal enough is enough.”
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office cautioned it was not a “magic bullet” but hoped it would increase pressure on Tehran where all other avenues had failed.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe timeline
“I have today decided that the UK will take a step that is extremely unusual and exercise diplomatic protection,” Mr Hunt said. “This represents formal recognition by the British Government that her treatment fails to meet Iran’s obligations under international law and elevates it to a formal state-to-state issue.
“I have not taken this decision lightly. I have considered the unacceptable treatment Nazanin has received over three years, including not just lack of access to medical treatment but also lack of due process in the proceedings brought against her,” he continued.
“My decision is an important diplomatic step which signals to Tehran that its behaviour is totally wrong. It is unlikely to be a magic wand that leads to an overnight result. But it demonstrates to the whole world that Nazanin is innocent and the UK will not stand by when one of its citizens is treated so unjustly.”
Tulip Siddiq, MP for the Zaghari-Ratcliffes’ constituency in Hampstead, had previously said on her case that “the deterioration of Nazanin’s health and the ongoing abuses of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and their judiciary means that we have arrived at a point of no return. Standard consular relations, or business as usual, simply will not do."
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