Family is everything and not many people know this better than Richard Ratcliffe, husband of British hostage in Iran – Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Today marks 11 days since Richard Ratcliffe has been on hunger strike outside the UK Foreign Office which is right next to the Prime Minister’s Office. He has 4 demands for Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his ultimate objective is to get the British government to free his wife so she can come back home to London after being held hostage in Iran for the last 5 years.
Richard’s ability to keep on campaigning tirelessly to free his wife would not be possible without the love and support of his family. On this episode, we speak to Richard Ratcliffe himself, his sister who is a doctor, Rebecca Jones, his brother, Chris Ratcliffe and his mother, Barbara Ratcliffe.
We discuss how Richard has been feeling throughout the week, his disappointing meeting with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, how his health is being monitored and looked after by his sister, the good caring people that have showed up to help, what the public can do as well as what the last 5 years have been like for the Ratcliffe family.
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Free Nazanin, British Hostage in Iran – The Hunger Strike, Part 1 | Pod Hostage Diplomacy
Daren Nair, Richard Ratcliffe, Rebecca Jones, Chris Ratcliffe, Barbara Ratcliffe
Welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. We work to free hostages and the unjustly detained around the world. Together with their families, we share their stories every week and let you know how you can help bring them home.
I'm Daren Nair. This week's episode is about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. She's a British citizen, an innocent mother, and a charity worker from London who has been held hostage in Iran since 3rd April 2016.
Two former UK Foreign Secretaries, Jack Straw and Jeremy Hunt, have both called Nazanin a hostage. The current Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, has also called her a hostage. When asked on television, if Nazanin is a hostage, the former Foreign Secretary and current Deputy Prime Minister of the UK, Dominic Raab said, he cannot argue against that characterization.
In September 2016, just a few months after Nazanin was taken, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated that Nazanin's imprisonment in Iran was arbitrary and called for her immediate release. Arbitrary is another word for unjust or wrongful.
Iran has a long history of taking innocent people with foreign passports hostage to extract concessions from their home country which in Nazanin's case is Britain. This is state-sponsored hostage-taking, also known as hostage diplomacy.
Now, what is it that Iran wants in return for releasing this innocent mother from London, you may ask?
Well, the Iranian regime wants the UK to pay a forty-year-old 400 million debt that the UK owes Iran. In the 1970s, the Iranian government ordered around 1,000 Chieftain tanks and armoured vehicles from Britain and paid the British [(2:00)] £400 million for them.
When the Islamic Revolution took place in Iran, the government was overthrown and Britain decided not to deliver these tanks to the new regime in power in Iran and they also decided not to pay the money back. An international court has ruled that Britain must pay Iran this money and yet the British government has yet to do so.
Let me be clear, this in no way whatsoever justifies Iran's hostage-taking, but it is important to know why they are doing this. Nazanin is a hostage, being used as a bargaining chip by the Iranian regime to force Britain to pay this £400 million debt. Nazanin's husband, Richard Ratcliffe, has been campaigning tirelessly these last 5 years to free his wife. I had the honour of campaigning with him since the beginning of his campaign. Richard was my first-ever guest on this podcast. And you can listen to that episode titled "Free Nazanin, British Hostage in Iran", published a couple months ago on 1st September to learn more about what happened to Nazanin and how Richard started the Free Nazanin campaign.
At this very moment, Richard Ratcliffe is on a hunger strike outside the UK Foreign Office in London which is right next to the Prime Minister's Office. It's day 11 of his hunger strike. It is very cold, it is raining and he has been sleeping in a tent on the pavement outside the Foreign Office for the last 11 days.
Why? To put pressure on the British government to free his wife Nazanin and bring her home to West Hampstead in London so she can finally be reunited with Richard and their 7-year-old daughter, Gabriella.
Now, what many people don't know is that the British government is not legally required to protect British [(4:00)] citizens overseas. And therefore, rarely does the right thing unless there's a lot of pressure from the public and the media.
Richard knows this, which is why he is on hunger strike. Richard has 4 demands for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Number 1, acknowledge Nazanin and other British citizens held in Iran as hostages. Number 2, punish the perpetrators. Number 3, keep the promise to settle a £400 million debt. Number 4, commit to end Iran’s state hostage-taking in the JCPOA Iran nuclear deal negotiations.
This is not the first time Richard has gone on a hunger strike in the last 2 years. It's actually the second. The first one lasted 14 days outside the Iranian embassy in London. The purpose of the first strike was mainly to put pressure on the Iranians to free Nazanin. Now, they didn't, but it definitely raised awareness of Nazanin's case significantly in the UK and around the world.
Richard was supported by Members of Parliament from almost every political party in the UK. Now, if you follow British politics, there are rarely any issues which unite the country. Richard's campaign to free his wife, Nazanin, did do just that.
Hundreds, if not thousands of people came to visit Richard and say they supported him. I was there watching over him every day during his last hunger strike. And I've been there almost every day this time. I interviewed Richard on day 2 of this current hunger strike. Here's our conversation.
Richard, How are you feeling?
I'm tired, a bit cold. Probably a bit more settled today than we were yesterday. Today, I got rained on which was our first experience of that. A lot of people came down. First few MPs. A number of people [(6:00)] had come to visit the last hunger strike came down again. And also actually, we had a question at Parliament, an Urgent Question. So I went to Parliament to watch that debate and we're not actually that far.
So yeah, the police came again. They said, "Listen, it's okay." They've come in the middle of the night to try and move us on. It's a lot colder than last time. We'll take it day by day. But yeah, pretty shattered but more settled now than we were yesterday.
So I see people have been visiting you, bringing blankets, flasks, hot water, and lights. What do you think of the support you've got so far from the public?
It's really lovely that people have come down. You can't do something like this on your own. Throughout our story, we had an awful lot of people caring and showing that care. It's been nice to see people I hadn't seen for a long time. We had some people I hadn't met before coming down to show solidarity, but also some that I hadn't seen since the last hunger strike. Yesterday it was just a tent and a couple of chairs. There's now as you see, a lot more decoration here. That feels safer. It feels nice, an embodiment of that kindness of people, and kindness of strangers.
And obviously, when you start a hunger strike, it feels like quite a brave thing because it's a bit provocative where we're here camping in front of the Foreign Office’s doorstep to embarrass them. There's no way around it. The state has all sorts of powers to move us on if it wanted to. The policeman said today, I’m not allowed to say it but, "I'm fully behind you." And [(8:00)] that care and support is what will get Nazanin home. It's what gets all my family through this. I think, the difference I find this time around is we actually got Gabriella here. So, I see the strain more on her, I see the strain more on my family around her. It's a bit colder, it's a bit harsher.
So we'll have to sort of think carefully how we take it forwards. The point of it was to push the government to do something different. Going to Parliament today, said nothing different. So you know, we'll have to see how things go. I think we really need to dig in a bit longer than, you know. They're not going to quickly change.
So, you have four demands for the Prime Minister. Number 1, acknowledge Nazanin and the others as hostages. Number 2, punish the perpetrators. Three, keep the promise to settle the debt. Four, commit to ending state hostage-taking in JCPOA negotiations. Do you feel you've had any traction?
Well, no. Not so far. The minister is very careful not to use the word “hostage” in Parliament today. Got asked directly a couple of times. Got asked directly on all of those and didn't do anything other than saying it was a priority and they were committed to getting people home.
So we're talking past each other. I think it was clear to everyone in Parliament that the ministers' answers didn't muster and probably clear to the minister himself that he was being asked very precise specific things and he was giving generic platitudes back. We'll see as the days go on. I mean, behind closed doors, we've had these conversations with the government before. The fact that we're on a hunger strike. It's not the first stage of those conversations. It shows that they're not keen to change their path. I happen to think that [(10:00)] their strategy is the wrong one, that they do need to be a lot more honest about hostage taking, and that's what we were saying in the media. We'll see really what traction we get and it's from that traction where we'll be able to move things.
By the end of day five of his hunger strike, I spoke to him again. Today, Richard had a meeting with the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss.
Richard, did your meeting meet expectations?
Well, in truth, it was a disappointing meeting. I think I thought it might go the way it did. So essentially, she said, "Listen, we're very sympathetic. Sincerely, we care a lot. We're working hard on this case." But they weren't prepared to change anything they were doing. In the hunger strike, we've got essentially 2 kinds of demands. One is to say, Nazanin is held over British government debt, you need to settle that debt. And the other is to say, you need to stop encouraging hostage-taking, and you need to challenge it in different ways. They weren't willing to disclose why they wouldn't settle the debt or what the problem was. They weren't willing on all the different points about challenging hostage-taking. Apart from the abstract that it was important to do. They weren't willing to countenance any of the different ideas we talked through. So we got a bit frustrated.
At one point, my uncle said, "Listen, you know, you don't have a strategy. You just have some tactics." I pointed out that if they carried on the current course, Nazanin was gonna be returned to prison. I believe that to be absolutely true. And I think it was a tough meeting with the Foreign Secretary. It felt at some point like staff intervened to end it early. And, yeah, I think we all came out a bit deflated, particularly those that have expectations of it, achieving [(12:00)] something. We don't know what we don't know. We don't know what's going on behind closed doors. But what we do know, doesn't stack up. It is unbelievable that for 5 years, an innocent British citizen and other British citizens can be held over government debt and all the government can say is well, we'd like to pay up but we can't, for a secret reason, we can't tell you about. And we don't want to do anything to offend the Iranians. I mean, well, holding their money is probably the key offense.
So yeah, I think we came out thinking, well, we need to carry on sitting here. Carry on the hunger strike and we will look to see what happens in the days to come.
So it's been 5 days since you've been on the hunger strike. Your last meal was on Sunday morning. And it's quite cold outside now. It's been raining as well. How are you feeling?
Yeah definitely getting slower. You could probably hear that in my voice and in the speed of my thoughts. And yes, it is colder. Actually, we could have been less lucky with the weather but it's chilly tonight. I'm sitting here with a hot water bottle and a blanket. Someone kindly brought a hot water bottle. You know, I think this will get tough the days that go. I'm not hungry. Still, I was having a fresh wash this morning. I'm looking at, you know, a mirror, not looking noticeably thinner but definitely, yeah, more tired.
So, Gabriella, your 7-year-old daughter has been visiting you every day. How has she been taking your hunger strike?
She probably doesn't notice the hunger strike component, but she knows I'm not allowed to eat. She was eating some M&M's and having a great time, enjoying the fact that she could eat them and I couldn't. But the camping part and the sort of coming every day here, it's a strange thing for a 7-year-old to be exposed to as there are lots of TV cameras around and lots [(14:00)] of strangers and lots of politicians. Very proud of the fact that she met the Mayor and that he came to meet me than just going to meet Daddy. He was going to meet her. She was very proud of telling that to Nazanin. But yeah, I think as the days go on, it could become more upsetting for her.
At the moment, she's had a happy time playing with children that have come down with their families. Playing with people, some of the helpers and supporters have come. But certainly, Nazanin is worried. She's obviously worried about being called back into prison. The judiciary spokesman yesterday announced that her court case is finished. We just haven't yet implemented it. But she's also worried about me being here on the pavement on a hunger strike. The amount that impacts Gabriella and the fact that the government isn't changing, isn't moving.
So, yeah. I think really besides herself not being able to focus on anything I've had a few calls and messages with her throughout the days and it does impose a burden on everyone. There's a balance to do there between what's enough to make a point to the government so they really get it and I don't feel they've got it today, and what is not too much trauma to impose on Nazanin.
So tomorrow, you're having a pumpkin carving event?
Yes. We're doing two things tomorrow actually. One is we're delivering the Change.org petition to Downing Street so if anyone wants to sign still before we do that, there's still time. That'll be about lunchtime. And then after that, we're gonna be doing pumpkin carving ahead of Halloween. So we've got a number of pumpkins here, we're getting some more in the morning. And we'll carve [(16:00)] those with small children and bigger children, and then have those decorating the area behind us, behind the camp and it's just to symbolize we're still here partly to be there trying to do different things that are creative.
And, yeah, I think the value that there is for me in that people come down. We had lots of people come down again today to just, you know, wish us well and wish us luck and see how they're following our story and sign the visitor's book. There's a visitor's book that one day Nazanin will be able to come back and read and realize all that care and love that is there. It remains really important.
So, yeah, we'll try and do a few more events. At the same time, we're probably going to have to think through what's going to prompt the government to move and me sitting here didn't do that today. That may change in the days to come. Maybe we're not used to different structures.
So what can the public do to help now given that you're five days into your hunger strike? The government doesn't seem to be budging. Iranian delegation may be coming up to Glasgow for the climate change conference. What can the public do to help?
Well, we're still asking people to ask their MPs to come down. If they live nearby to London, please come and visit and say hello and sign the book. And then the other activity we got which we'll start to do next week maybe and perhaps the week after if it will last that long. We've been asking people to make patches. Patches that you would make into a patchwork quilt, big patchwork quilt to symbolize all the outside warmth and care that has been sustaining us. So if anyone you know, whether it's making a patch with [(18:00)] a poster pen or felted pen or doing it with needle thread embroidery, and very delicate one, the size is 15 cm x 15 cm, which is just the border and then the bit to draw and to sew 10 cm x 10 cm. So this is essentially a two-and-a-half-centimetre border around it. I think, you know, with all these things, the value with having something that's made from it, and which is created out of something positive. You know, it's a legacy that Nazanin can come back to. So please, if any of you at all are creative, the details are on Amnesty's website, and please do keep pushing your MPs to come down and keep the government honest.
A hunger strike will definitely affect your health and if it goes on for too long, the damage done to your body could be irreversible, and the person on hunger strike could die. Richard's sister, Rebecca Jones knows this very well. She is a doctor, and she has been watching over Richard during his hunger strike, while also babysitting Richard and Nazanin's 7-year-old daughter, Gabriella. I spoke to Rebecca to find out what a hunger strike does to your body.
Becca, what is it like when someone goes on a hunger strike?
If the person goes on a hunger strike, the first day also they feel a little bit hungry. I think as your body tries to adjust, it's quite difficult to control your emotions which is what Richard found. Then you get more into an even keel and you just slowly, day by day, feel a bit weaker. So at the moment, we're at day 4 of the hunger strike, Richard is in such pretty good spirits. His body's got used to not eating and keeping hydrated but he is starting to look a little bit weaker, a bit more [(20:00)] tired as days go on.
I understand last time during the previous hunger strike you were giving him multivitamins, thiamine, and electrolyte replacement tablets. Are you doing the same thing this time around?
Yeah. So we started electrolyte replacement tablets. I haven't started thiamine yet but we will do thiamine. At the moment it is probably sort of early in the day to necessarily to worry too much about it but that certainly will be something we'll have to consider because the body does have quite a lot thiamine, especially on the refeeding. That's when you can have go into problems if your thiamine levels are particularly low.
So given we're in the middle of a pandemic, and unlike last time, it's the end of autumn, beginning of winter, in a way, or at least it feels like it, what are signs that this needs to stop?
Yeah, so obviously, we have concerns that he might contract COVID. Now, he's been double vaccinated, and he's also in an outside environment. So we've reduced risks as much as we can. I think the concern with the weather is a big one, especially as the temperature drops. We've been quite lucky this week as it’s been relatively mild this time of year. But if the rain kicks in heavily, or if it gets very cold, we've got big concerns about hypothermia. Certainly last time, you may remember towards the end of the hunger strike, and that was the warmer summer, he was starting to shiver quite a bit. So I think we will have to really keep a track of making sure that he managed to stay warm enough and take it each day by each day.
Thank you for your time.
Nazanin's hostage-taking and Richard's campaign to free her has shown the world that there are some very bad people out there. But it has also proved something that many of us know but rarely see on the news, that there are also so many good caring people out there in the world. Throughout these 11 days, there have been many amazing people who showed up to help Richard during his hunger strike. Some [(22:00)] of them showed up 2 years ago during his last hunger strike and decided to show up again to help.
Christine and Emily have been showing up every day to help out in any way possible. They brought sanitizer, mats, mugs, mint tea, and flasks, and even kept Gabriella company while Richard was doing media interviews. Kasra and Frances, who live nearby, have been showing up every evening before Richard goes to bed with hot water bottles and flasks. They even let Richard take a shower in their house during the weekend. They picked him up in front of the Foreign Office, drove him to their house, and brought him back. On weekdays, Richard has been going to the Parliament building in the mornings to take a shower. Thanks to his amazing MP Tulip Siddiq and her staff who have been letting him in to use these facilities. Ed, from West Hampstead, has been bringing bottles of water and flasks. Claire, a good caring person on Twitter decided to buy Richard a new tent because his current one was leaking when it rained. She also bought him a woolly hat and some gloves and had Amazon deliver them to Richard at his tent in front of the Foreign Office.
There are many others who brought blankets, mats, torch lights, power banks, sweaters, jackets, and even a pair of socks for Richard. Every night, there is at least 1 person sleeping in a separate tent next to Richard's in case he needs help in an emergency. Anyone who has done this can tell you it is not a pleasant experience. But they did it anyway because they care.
During these last 11 days, Richard has been visited by Members of Parliament and members of the House of Lords. He was visited by the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, as well as religious leaders, and celebrities. Everyone who has met Richard will tell you that he is a truly good person, and has been amazingly strong, resilient, and dignified [(24:00)] in the face of this injustice. He puts on a brave face in front of the cameras. But when he needs to lean on someone, he leans on his parents and siblings who have been there to hold him up every step of the way. I spoke to Richard's younger brother, Chris Ratcliffe.
Chris, it's been five and a half years since your sister-in-law has been taken hostage in Iran. You and the rest of your family have been a pillar of support for Richard. You've been taking great care of him. You guys have been amazing. In addition to being strong for Richard, you are also experiencing your trauma of having a family member being taken hostage. So my question is, what has it been like the last 5 and a half years?
I think it's been really hard. First of all, I think everyone goes through the immediate trauma of when Nazanin was taken and in a kind of shock and no one really understanding or knowing kind of quite what to do. But, since then it's, I suppose, it's just sort of in a cloud over the family and even in family events and things. There's always something missing. And I think, you know, that's why we do come together and campaign with Richard and do what we can to bring Nazanin home because that's we hope it helps but it also, I think, it's kind of cathartic and it helps us.
You're also Gabriella's uncle. I know at the beginning of the campaign, I've seen you and your wife, Shoma posts photos of you Skyping with Gabriella when she was in Tehran [(26:00)]. Now she's back home. What has it been like seeing Gabriella back and just comforting her when Richard is going through a hunger strike like this?
Yeah, I guess it's kind of bittersweet having Gabriella home. I think, obviously, we all missed her and, you know, it's amazing to see, in a way how well adapted she is, kind of coming over here and how she is. It's kind of become her home again. But it's also sad as well because this part of her life, which is missing and I think she's aware of that when she came over. But increasingly, as she gets older, she's starting to kind of maybe understand it a bit more. So it's kind of, it's bittersweet. And I think, yeah, hope for her that there won't be any deep trauma there and we will all do our best to look after her and care for her, and help her to pull through with Richard and Nazanin when this is all over.
So tonight, you're watching over Richard doing a hunger strike. Now I've done this myself, it's very hard to go to sleep in the cold, in a tent, and it's quite noisy. How do you manage?
Well, I'm wearing lots of thermals, perhaps too much, because I'm actually hot. I think the trick is to have a child waking up all through the night and then come prepared to be very tired. Hopefully, that will see me in good stead.
Anyone who is a good parent, or has been lucky enough to have good parents will know they'll always be there to protect [(28:00)] their children. Richard Ratcliffe has been lucky to have very good parents. Here's my conversation with Richard's mum, Barbara Ratcliffe.
Barbara, it's been 5 and a half years since your family's life has been turned upside down. You've been a pillar of support for Richard and your granddaughter Gabriella? What has the experience been like?
Mind-blowing. I had no idea that ordinary families could find themselves in this position. No, I still don't understand why. What have we ever done to the 2 governments?
I've been campaigning with your family for 5 and a half years. You've welcomed me as part of the family and I really appreciate that. And I know that Richard is an amazing campaigner and he puts on a very... he is strong and brave and he puts on a strong and brave face for the cameras and for the public. But when he needs someone to lean on, you're there for him. Your husband, John, Richard's dad is there for him. His siblings and family members are all there for him. How do you encourage him to keep going on? How do you give him strength?
I really don't know. I think he's born with the strength. Obviously, we will support him in everything he does, unless it was criminal.
But yes, he's doing so well. All we can do is our own little bits. I mean, I can do the craft work. That's not a problem to me. My husband likes doing, I don't know, not that he likes doing, but he will do the proofreading. And then our daughter, she organizes it, and the other 2 boys get told what to do and they have to do it. [Laughter] No, everybody is helping. And it's not just [(30:00)] our family. We've got a wider family, obviously. My sister's family is fabulous at doing things as well. And friends do things. It's just passing the word around and hoped to goodness that the government eventually will pay this wretched debt and she can come out. If it's as simple as that, which it certainly was at the beginning.
So how do you keep going on? I mean, obviously, it's very difficult watching your son on hunger strike. And this is the second time. How do you find the strength to keep going on?
I don't know. I think it comes from within. If it's your child, then you just find the strength. Yeah, I really can't tell you where it comes from. But what's the alternative? There is no alternative for us. We've just got to keep going.
How do you convince Gabriella that things are going to be all right? Because I know as a 7-year-old, her world is very small. And she lives her life day to day. She lives in the moment. She's still having fun right now. She's at a Halloween party. But she knows that her mum's in Iran and can't come home even though she wants to. How do you kind of protect Gabriella, your granddaughter from this?
I think she protects herself. We wouldn't dream of bringing it up in conversation if she doesn't want to talk. She doesn't often want to talk. But occasionally she does and we do it as a 7-year-old... well, we hope is a 7-year-old's level. She's got lots of cousins in England and in Iran. The English ones are nearer to her age and they try to treat her like a little sister. She's a funny little girl. She likes to be English when she's in England.[(32:00)] She's Iranian when she's in Iran. She's told us that and we respect that because she is both. I think we support her. She leads the support. Nobody stirs her up with it. So we just live ordinary lives. But she will tell us when she wants to speak about it. She also denies that she knows any Farsi because when in England, she's English. But when she talks to her mum, sometimes she will speak Farsi because she's Iranian then.
So there have obviously been a lot of good caring people who show up to help. People who you didn't know before but saw your cases on the news, follow your petitions, follow your tweet, the Free Nazanin Twitter account, and I've decided to show up to help. Can you just talk about the support you've received?
The support is absolutely amazing. So many lovely people in the world. They really are helping us enormously. People power is what will eventually get her back even if the 2 governments aren't bothering. I feel sure that people power will work in the end. And we're almost like a family each time that the time was in the summer before and we all got on with each other, didn't we? It was a lovely experience in that way. This one, it's a bit cold but still, the people are coming and being so supportive, and it matters. It matters to us, but it matters even more to Ricky. They're signing the books so Nazanin can see it when she comes back. And we can show her it over FaceTime. But she can really look at it later.
So when you're speaking to Nazanin and she's still in Iran, anxious, worried that she might go to prison, how do you keep her hopes up while at the same time, [(34:00)] I wouldn't say suppressing your own concerns and anxieties but making sure that you say what she needs to hear. How do you go about that?
Well, I hope we do all the time. It's probably difficult, but it isn't because you don't want to hurt anybody. I think I tend to be sort of slightly more optimistic. Just purely because A, I have never experienced anything like this before, and B, I think it won't help her if we're all pessimistic. We tend to talk about artwork or that sort of thing. Because Naz likes to do sewing and painting and those sorts of things which I liked doing, so we tend to go off on an angle of that more, or we talk about Gabriella, what funny thing she's done or said.
And finally, Richard's case has highlighted that the British government needs to do more to protect British citizens overseas. This isn't just about Iran even though Iran is the culprit here, the Iranian regime, sorry. But the British government does have a duty to protect its citizens overseas. What would you say to the British government?
We need to pay the debt because it's not a ransom. It is a debt. I had no idea that Britain behaved like that and didn't pay debts, and bring her home.
It's been an honour campaigning with Richard and his family. And as I say to all my guests, we will be right here by their side until their loved one comes back home. Please do tell your friends and family about Nazanin. Help Richard spread the word. Help him free Nazanin.
Thank you for listening. And we will be back with part 2 next week. Take care.