Due to health issues, we’re now taking an extended break. We hope to be back with new episodes in Sept 2023
Nov. 17, 2021

Free Nazanin, British Hostage in Iran – The Hunger Strike, Part 3 | Pod Hostage Diplomacy

Free Nazanin, British Hostage in Iran – The Hunger Strike, Part 3 | Pod Hostage Diplomacy
Apple Podcasts podcast player icon
Spotify podcast player icon
Google Podcasts podcast player icon
Amazon Music podcast player icon
TuneIn podcast player icon
Stitcher podcast player icon
Podchaser podcast player icon
Podcast Addict podcast player icon
PocketCasts podcast player icon
Deezer podcast player icon
PlayerFM podcast player icon
Goodpods podcast player icon
RSS Feed podcast player icon

This past Saturday, Richard Ratcliffe ended his hunger strike outside the UK Foreign Office after 21 days. His wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been held hostage in Iran since 3 April 2016 and the British government has not done enough to free Nazanin and bring her back home to London. Richard had 4 demands for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. 

This week, we speak to Richard Ratcliffe himself to find out how he’s recovering, his thoughts on the recent debates in the Houses of Parliament regarding freeing his wife as well as what’s next for the Free Nazanin campaign. We also hear from Washington Post reporter and former hostage in Iran, Jason Rezaian on his experience working with Richard Ratcliffe. 

For more information on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, please check out the following:

Get the latest updates on hostage cases we at Pod Hostage Diplomacy are working on including new episodes by subscribing to our fortnightly newsletter, the Hostage Briefing. Subscribe here.

You can also follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Support the show

Free Nazanin, British Hostage in Iran – The Hunger Strike, Part 3 | Pod Hostage Diplomacy  


Daren Nair, Richard Ratcliffe, Jason Rezaian


Daren Nair: 

Welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. We work to free hostages and the unjustly detained around the world. I'm Daren Nair. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a British citizen and a charity worker. She has been held hostage in Iran since 3rd April 2016. Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, was on hunger strike for 21 days outside the UK Foreign Office, which is right next to the Prime Minister's office.
 Now, Richard had four demands for Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Number one, acknowledge Nazanin and the other British citizens held in Iran as hostages. Number two, punish the perpetrators. Demand number three, keep the promise to settle the debt. Now, what Richard is talking about here is the 400-million-pound unpaid debt that Britain owes Iran, which is over 40 years old. Nazanin is being held hostage by the Iranian regime to force the British government to repay this debt. Demand number 4, commit to end state hostage-taking, also known as hostage diplomacy in the JCPOA Iran-UK deal negotiations.
 Thankfully, Richard ended his hunger strike on Saturday, which was day 21. He promised Nazanin he would do so because their 7-year-old daughter Gabriella needs both her parents. If you would like to find out more about Richard's hunger strike, the reasons why Nazanin was taken hostage, the deplorable conditions of her detention, as well as the amazing campaigning Richard has done throughout these last five and a half years with the families of other hostages, please do listen to our [(2:00)] last two episodes.
 This week's episode is part three of our coverage of Richard's hunger strike. I spoke to Richard himself to find out how he's recovering, his thoughts on the Free Nazanin debates in the House of Parliament that took place yesterday and the day before, as well as what's next for the Free Nazanin campaign. Here's our conversation:
 You are on a hunger strike for 21 days. It's been three days since you ended your hunger strike. How are you feeling?
 Richard Ratcliffe: 

Yeah. Probably better than when I entered it. By the end it was getting quite tough and I was certainly struggling in the last few days, feeling very short of energy. Three days on, I've had a few meals, but not much food. I've been limited to 800 calories a day, and I've been down to the hospital a couple of times, straight after, at the hospital. I was again there yesterday and will be going in tomorrow. They've basically been checking to see blood and so on. I feel gradually better and stronger, but it's quite complex if you go on a hunger strike and obviously when you're not eating, all your nutrients go down but when you start eating again, it's not as simple as it'll go up. Some go up, but some go down more as your response to food.
 They wanted to re-admit me on the Saturday and actually as a matter of fact they wanted to admit me again yesterday. We'll see how it goes tomorrow. I've just had a meal and I'm sitting here eating walnuts. It's creaking my body to go through it but it was a very important campaigning moment for us. It felt like we received a huge lot of support and care. And physically, it's creaky. So far, no major complications have emerged, but that doesn't mean there won't in the next few days. The most dangerous time was immediately after [(4:00)] the hunger strike, not during it. But touch wood that we get through it. I think I'll beat it. It felt like it made a difference.
 Daren Nair: 

You lost 12 kilograms, is that right?
 Richard Ratcliffe:

Yes. Candidly, I was probably a bit overweight going through it following all those years in lockdown, a year and a half in lockdown. So it went down quite a lot and, of course, partly because it was we were camping in the cold, so more energy was used in keeping warm than it would've been if it had been done in room temperature or even if we were camping in the summer.
 So I lost a lot of weight and certain things like my potassium levels were really low, and a couple of other things were in the red zone, not necessarily in the, "Oh my God, you can't leave the hospital" zone. But certainly, the medical advice was, "We think you should stay in." It's not a thing to do lightly, and it's not a thing to be flippant about. We probably pushed it as far as we could with the chances of being safe afterward being reasonable. Not great, but reasonable. I will say, yeah, I think the first time I did a hunger strike, which is only for two weeks, "Okay, well, let's see." It's a bit tough afterwards but you bounce back. Actually, I think I pushed my body pretty hard this time.
 Daren Nair: 

Well, we hope you recover soon and have no complications. It shows that you lost 12 kilograms. I remember Nazanin asking you to keep your beard for a few days when she first saw you on Saturday when you came home but Gabriela said, "No” and wanted you to shave it off straight away. Looking at you right now, I see Gabriella got her way.
 Richard Ratcliffe: 

I am indeed beardless. Yeah, it certainly [(6:00)] you said it right. Nazanin wanted a sort of you know, kind of a romantic holiday figure I suppose rather than a clean-shaven accountant. I said I wanted to have a sort of beard to show off and Gabriela didn't want someone who's scratchy to cuddle. So, it was quite straightforward in her logic. As I said to Nazanin. I think Gabriela's got the call on this one, you're far away. I can see her lead to a lot more straightforward.
 We agreed that when Nazanin comes back, we'll go on holiday, and then I can grow another beard when I come out of this, with a nice holiday atmosphere rather than associate it with a hunger strike. I certainly feel a lot cleaner now, having it all off and back to normal. And yeah, I think I probably look a bit younger. Partly, just because I'm thinner again rather than being a middle-aged overweight, man.
 And yeah, I think Gabriella was looking for things to get back to normal. And that she has been a bit frustrated this week so I had promised her I'll be picking her up from school every day. Actually, on Monday, I was in the hospital all day. I was in at 9:30 and I didn't get out of there until after school pickup times, until about 4:00. She was really upset that I didn’t keep that promise. Probably all the emotions of having neither her mom nor dad these past few weeks, and being looked after by different family members, but not having them around. The disruption in the flat and it was, as you'll recall, it was a big mess because everyone's just surviving.
 We're not unpacked or sourced out but you can expect that will take a couple of weeks to get back to normality. But certainly, for her, getting back to the routine of school pickup and various different things. It's quite important for her sense of safety as much anything else.
 Daren Nair: 

There have been debates in the Houses of Parliament, [(8:00)] both the House of Lords and the House of Commons about the British government's efforts to free Nazanin. And the fact that they need to do much better. What are your thoughts on these debates?
 Richard Ratcliffe: 

That's right. So probably one of the things that came out of the hunger strike was a huge buildup of parliamentary concern and impatience that this has been dragging on for so long. There is something genuinely abnormal about a British citizen being on a hunger strike in front of his government. To get the government to pay attention and do something.
 We had an urgent question in the House of Lords yesterday. Today, we had what's called a Westminster All the Way, which is a really long one like an hour and a half. Then, I was at the debate today, the one yesterday not so much, I saw that on the telly. Yesterday, I thought the government's response was quite unnerving. It was a very good showing from the Lords asking lots of really good questions about where are we on the debt? What are we doing to challenge Iran’s hostage-taking? What's going on? The minister answered, Lord Goldsmith. It was a lot of tosh if I'm honest. It really quite hardened positions about it. We actually check with them and we'll check them again with the Foreign Office directly, in writing and verbally. They were saying "Listen, we can't possibly pay our debt back because then it would look like we're paying ransoms for hostages" which is completely the cart before the horse in a far more hardened position than they've ever said before.
 He wouldn't use the word British so he didn't ever refer to Nazanin as British. It was always the "Dual Nationals" as though there is a sort of hierarchy of citizenship and there are two-tier systems. There are those who they really care about, the real British. Then, there are those who have a British passport, but we all know, they're minorities and probably a different colour. So, I think [(10:00)] that was shameful and certainly was fairly bleak yesterday. Not in least because the Government tried to pressure the House of Commons in the debate, saying not to talk about the debt. Where my instinct was tell the newspapers about that and that's what I did. Then the speaker overruled and gave us a waver as it's called, to be able to talk about whatever you want and there isn't really a restriction.
 Today's debate, I thought was excellent. It was an hour and a half. Westminster All the Way normally has like 5 or 6 MPs turn up. This one had over 50, there was standing room only, there were plenty of people who want to speak and couldn't, lots of interventions, some really excellent points from Conservative MPs, as well as SNP and Labour, and Lib Dems. We've been worried that it would just end up being just an oppositional debate with just opposition MPs and then you know the minister defending but it wasn't, it was cross-party.
 And then there must have been 25 voices saying to the Government, listen, this is debt. It is honourable to pay a debt. The failure to pay the debt, of course, creates problems. And you know it does not make sense that there has been no way to do that. I think the minister was quite shaken by the end. He was struggling to finish his speech and get his points across.
 Not challenged quite robustly mainly on the debt but also on what have you done with diplomatic protection. And his answer was weak to the point of disingenuous. I feel that the only bit I reacted on was like, "I can't believe he got away." He's trying to say that twice. So what he said was. "Well, yes, we invoked diplomatic protection in Nazanin’s case." Because I'd ask them explicitly, "I want you to set out what you have done with it in the last two years." And but as when we invoked it we said it might not achieve anything and indeed that's been true, proved [(12:00)] and it's a great shame. But the reason is because Iran doesn't recognise dual nationality, which is such a combination of lies, it's untrue.
 The reality is that the UK has achieved nothing with diplomatic protection because it has used diplomatic protection not one bit and there are various things we've been pushing the government to do and they haven't done any of them. But Iran's attitude to dual nationality or single nationality or even diplomatic protection is irrelevant legally. It's like me sending my navy to you and then saying well my neighbour didn't defeat you because actually as it turns out you don't like boats. Whether it's irrelevant that your Navy goes in, you do it. The other side, responds to the reality they're given.
 The UK clearly, the Foreign Office clearly pretended, decided not to have done it and pretended it away and haven’t done anything with it. He was asked a number of questions about whether he was going to invoke it for another case. Ashoori’s case and was very cagey basically saying well it doesn't really achieve much. So we're probably not sure what we're going to do. That's the only bit where I thought he was saying something new but problematic. Otherwise, it was the same platitudes.
 We were looking to those debates to get a sense of how the government's position moved. I think what is clear from the last two days is knowing the government's position hasn't moved. It's still waiting for something. Still something’s blocked, you don't get to see what. But probably there is more and more open condemnation and open, I don't know what the word is, the word is like just astonishment at the failure of the government [(14:00)] in maintaining these fault lines.
 So I think the government would have walked away feeling exceedingly exposed. Both Houses are making it perfectly clear that the government's position is not good enough. That was being said repeatedly over the Minister's words. And it's right, the government's position is indefensible and that's why it offers no credible defence whatsoever. So, I came away yesterday or came away today a lot more upbeat than I was this time yesterday.
 This time yesterday, we were still battling about whether we were allowed to talk about the debt, just seeing the House of Lord's nonsense from the minister. Where does it take us? I don't know. I think what was clear is we have a consensus across the House to resolve this. And people saying, "Listen, we've had 200 constituency messages on this issue. A big issue will get 20 normally, it's almost unprecedented. And yeah, that can only be a good thing. We still don't know at this point what the blockage is. It doesn't make sense at this point. So I think my honest sense is, we have to keep battling. And battle, we will.
 Daren Nair:  

So your hunger strike, didn't bring Nazanin home but it definitely put a lot of pressure on the British government. It received global media coverage and so much support within the UK and around the world. You now have this momentum where so many more people are aware of Nazanin's case, aware of Iran's hostage-taking, and also aware of Britain's inability and lack of will to protect its own citizens overseas. What are you doing to take advantage of this momentum? What's next for the Free Nazanin campaign?
 Richard Ratcliffe: 

Okay, so really good question, and it's probably a bit early to say since I'm still in recovery mode, but I think that's right. I think it feels [(16:00)] now like it did back in autumn 2017 that there's a recognition that the government has messed up. And that the government needs to step up and resolve things and it's failing Nazanin at a fundamental level. I think it's a different recognition back in 2017 it was fairly blamed on then Foreign Secretary now Prime Minister for his mistake, there's more of a policy understanding now that there's a policy gap here around Iran’s hostage-taking, around the UK's response to it, and the timidity of that response which doesn't make sense to anyone looking at it. In terms of the next steps, I think we need to look carefully at what we can do in Parliament. That's about as big a debate, this weekend, Jeremy Corbyn who spoke at it said it was the biggest Westminster Hall debate, he could remember in his parliamentary history. But he's been there 40 years.
 The government has a remarkable record of deflecting and downplaying and calming down again. So I don't think we should be resting on our laurels. So there's a need to think well what can we do beyond that. How can Parliament impose our will on the government on this issue? Beyond just having various debates saying, "This government is useless." And getting the platitudes back. Certainly, there's a strong appetite to bring the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister to talk about this. Again, it was the junior Minister who was the fall guy who had to offer up the government's excuses.
 And beyond that, I think there are points we can follow up with the lawyers. When I was talking about the diplomatic protection stuff bits around the government's legal claims on sanctions and so on which just don't stack up. I think we should be calling them out a bit more. And certainly around he was asked quite directly to acknowledge that Nazanin’s a hostage. He wouldn't do it again. It's the stuff to follow up on that. [(18:00)] In terms of what people can do in relation to that. I think we do need to think how we can build on that support. Both within the parliamentary system, but also outside to just, you know, this is a government, our government, the British government responds to populist pressure in quite a straightforward way. And they’ve had a series of u-turns.
 I think we are clearly a problem for the government. Whether we're still a problem for the Prime Minister or whether he’s sort of successfully keeping us shouting at his juniors remains to be seen. I think we stepped up again in awareness and awareness of the government's role in that compared to previously. But we've been here before and the government's got off the hook. So I don't know in the end I think it's a mixture of getting better and stepping away from the white heat of the hunger strike moment. To work out where we are and what can we do and what’s reasonable.
 And it probably is working with other families. Actually the last three weeks, it's all been our folks getting Nazanin home which is quite different from what we were doing six months ago. And it provokes unsettling dynamics between different families and so on. Because obviously, the pressure is for us, it's not necessarily for other families and they reverberate in different ways. So yeah, I was talking afterward with our lawyers in Redress and the guys in Amnesty about, "Okay, what can we do next then?"
 It's probably much more than let's sit down and work things through and then see how we can mobilize all those great Amnesty groups and all they do. How we can mobilize the legal stuff or through the media? And a long rambling, answer to say, I don't know, but I think this is an opportunity to [(20:00)] really push the government to protect people better. I do have a responsibility to try to make the best use of that.
 Daren Nair: 

So in the meantime, members of the public can help by sharing Nazanin's story with everyone they know. You can keep writing to your Members of Parliament. You can write a letter to your local newspaper and let them know why you think it's important the British government brings Nazanin home and better protects British citizens overseas. And tie it to how that relates to you and the people you know in your life and how it could potentially affect them too one day. So those are just some suggestions of what you can do to help. Now, is there anything else you like to mention, Richard?
 Richard Ratcliffe: 

No, probably just a big thank you. We had a huge overwhelming level of support but also at a more simple level, I expected an awful lot of kindness these past three weeks. For an awful lot of kind, lovely caring people up and down the country on social media, but also like in person who came to visit, that's a really rare experience. It's a really nurturing experience and it is something I will treasure for the rest of my days. So thank you to everyone who has been part of that experience and who shared their kindness with us.
 Daren Nair:

I said this many times and I've always meant it. We'll be right here by your side until Nazanin comes home. Thank you for taking the time to speak to us. And we wish you a speedy recovery.
 Richard Ratcliffe: 

Thank you.
 Daren Nair: 

Now, for those of you who are not familiar with my background. I've been campaigning to free hostages and the unjustly detained for almost six years. I used to be a Director on the Board of Amnesty International UK. I have left Amnesty now. And I decided to create a media company that includes this podcast to continue my work to free hostages and the unjustly detained. I get contacted by the families of current hostages around the world, especially [(22:00)] those held in Iran. These are families that are yet to go public with their loved one's case. Whenever this happens there are two people I always consult with - Richard Ratcliffe and Jason Rezaian.
 Jason Rezaian is an American and a Washington Post reporter. In July 2014, when Jason was the Post’s Tehran Bureau Chief, he was arrested by the Iranian regime and held hostage for 544 days in Iran's notorious Evin Prison. Shortly after Jason's release in early 2016, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was taken hostage by the same regime and held in the same prison. Jason has created an amazing podcast that tells you his story. It's called ‘544 days’ and is available exclusively on Spotify. Please do check it out. Since Jason's release, he has been tirelessly working with other hostage families to free their loved ones, including Richard Ratcliffe.
 Jason Rezaian: 

I'm Jason Rezaian and I'm a journalist for the Washington Post. I got to know Richard Ratcliffe in 2016. I had been held hostage by the regime in Iran from July of 2014 until January 2016. When I was released in a negotiated settlement between Iran and the US, not long after I was released Nazanin was arrested. And it wasn't too long after that before Richard and I connected. He was looking for advice and support in his efforts to free Nazanin and bring Nazanin and their daughter Gabriella back to the UK.
 I was very [(24:00)] ready to do whatever I could to help. I'm shocked that it's been now almost six years that Richard and I have been communicating and plotting different ways to try and raise awareness around Nazanin's case and also pushed for a resolution. I've written stories about Nazanin. I've done television interviews. But I've also developed a real fondness and admiration for Richard who is part of this strange family of hostage loved ones and survivors that we have been kind of cobbling together around the world in recent years.
 And I've looked at Richard as a kindred spirit throughout. We speak regularly and I'm always astounded by his ability to be gracious, to maintain a sense of humour and perspective, and to just really always advocate for his family, for his wife, and his daughter. It's a special gift that he has. And I think I have learned a tremendous amount from Richard in the last few years that we have been communicating and sharing ideas, information, and strategies about how to put an end to state-sponsored hostage-taking.
 For me, as someone who is home now and whose ordeal [(26:00)] is over. It's easy to make a decision that I want to work with others to try and end this heinous practice. But for Richard, who has been mired in real-time for nearly six years, it's an incredible credit and testament to his character that he is so invested in not only trying to end his own family's ordeal but in trying to end this practice once and for all, make it harder for governments around the world, whether it's Iran or other governments to do this to innocent individuals.
 But also to raise the stakes for democratic governments, like the UK, the US, Germany, France, Canada, Australia, and other allies to say, "Hey look, your citizens are being taken hostage and used as leverage. You must stand up to this evil and come up with adequate deterrence." That hasn't happened yet. But thanks to Richard, I believe that we're closer to forcing that issue among responsible governments. And I deeply believe that when this crime against individuals is finally rooted out and eradicated, it will be in no small part because of Richard and his efforts.
 I firmly believe that if and when this problem is eradicated, we will look back on Richard and his efforts to not only raise awareness [(28:00)] about the issue of state hostage-taking and hostage diplomacy but also coming up with effective tools to deter it. He will be credited as an individual who was involved with this, at a turning point in the history of the problem. And I think everyone owes him a debt of gratitude for his commitment but more than that for his commitment to humanity.
 Daren Nair: 

If I've learned anything campaigning with the families of hostages these last six years, it's that campaigning to free a loved one held hostage by a foreign government is a marathon, not a sprint. We're in it for the long haul and we need good caring people like you to join us. Let's work together to free Nazanin. Thank you for listening and taking care.