Hopes rise for release of Briton jailed in Iran after court hearing postponed

Kevin Rawlinson
British foreign secretary Boris Johnson attends a meeting with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif (not pictured) in Tehran. Photograph: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Hopes have been raised that the Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe could soon be freed from a Tehran prison after her expected appearance in court was postponed in the wake of a visit to the country by the UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson.

Zaghari-Ratclifge’s case was complicated when Johnson wrongly told parliament she was a training journalists in Iran, and it had been expected she would face fresh charges of espionage on Sunday, partly based on Johnson’s remarks.

She has been held in jail since April 2016 after being accused of plotting to overthrow the regime.

Officials in Iran pounced on Johnson’s error, citing it as proof of her guilt and she was brought before a judge on a second charge. She was due to appear in court again on Sunday but her husband said the hearing was put off.

Johnson, who faced calls to resign in the wake of his mistake and belatedly apologised, has been on a two-day visit to Iran, where he has held talks with the president, Hassan Rouhani, and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The Foreign Office said Johnson and Rouhani “both spoke forthrightly” and “agreed on the need to make progress in all areas”.

On Sunday, Zaghari-Ratcliffe said she could “see some light” – more than she has before. “The court, the imprisonment emerged all of a sudden out of the blue, so I hope it can disappear out of the blue also – if there is enough will,” she said.

“The other prisoners ask me if I have packed my bags and things. I am not ready to do that just yet. But if they call, I will just run. I don’t care about my things. Apart from the things I have made for people at home, I would give the rest away. Freedom is too precious to think about things.”

The postponement was “undoubtedly a good sign”, Nazanin’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, said on Sunday. “The foreign secretary also met with Nazanin’s family last night to reassure them that Nazanin was a close concern, and that her case had been discussed in every meeting he held.

“I am expecting a fuller debrief from the Foreign Office on the foreign secretary’s efforts on Nazanin’s case once he returns from the region, either Monday or Tuesday.”

Ratcliffe said he and his family had been “watching closely with hope” during Johnson’s visit. Ratcliffe had hoped to join Johnson in Iran, but was not granted permission.

He added: “I said I thought that, if the foreign secretary had a good Saturday, we might have a good Sunday, with a court case postponed. And so it has come to pass. Today is one of the good days in the past 20 months.

“This weekend we had our first ripple of freedom, with the postponement of Nazanin’s new court case.”

Last month, Zaghari-Ratcliffe underwent a health assessment to determine whether or not she was fit to remain in prison. Though the results are unknown, hope had been expressed that she might be released early, having served the minimum sentence required.

Her case was complicated, however, by the spectre of the impending court proceedings, which could end with five years being added to the sentence she is already serving, taking her total jail term to a decade.

“Of course, who knows what lies ahead, the past 20 months have had plenty of false turns – but my hope is that the ripple in the days ahead might become a full change of tide,” said Ratcliffe. “My hope today is as Nazanin once wrote, ‘Freedom feels one day closer, that Christmas dream remains’.”

He said that a month ago he was “cursing” Johnson. But he said the foreign secretary had been “as good as his word” thus far. “He did get to Iran, he did get there before her court case, and that did make a difference,” Ratcliffe said.

“Of course, one swallow doesn’t make a Christmas – Nazanin is not yet on a plane. But it is good to have at least a swallow in the sky.”

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested in 2016 during a holiday visit to show her baby daughter Gabriella to her parents. She has worked for BBC Media Action and Thomson Reuters Foundation, the news agency’s charitable arm, though not as a journalist.