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Hostages need more than just tea and sympathy from the Government, families say

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Richard Ratcliffe after her release in 2022
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Richard Ratcliffe after her release in 2022 - Victoria Jones/Pool Photo via AP

Hostages need more than just tea and sympathy from the British Government, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has told the Telegraph.

Richard Ratcliffe accused ministers of covering up the “extent of the problem”. He said “no lessons” had been learned from his wife’s detention in dealing with Britons now held hostage by Hamas in Gaza.

Last week, the Telegraph disclosed the anger of British families who felt “utterly abandoned” by the British Government in securing the release of loved ones.

In a unified call, relatives of Britons held overseas as political prisoners are now demanding the Foreign Office establish an office of hostage affairs to tackle future crises.

Mr Ratcliffe also disclosed that David Cameron, recently appointed as Foreign Secretary, had admitted to his wife, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, that the Government “hadn’t got it right in how it handled hostage cases”. She was detained in Iran for six years until her release in March 2022.

Richard Ratcliffe, husband of detained charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, protests outside the Foreign Office in 2021
Richard Ratcliffe, husband of detained charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, protests outside the Foreign Office in 2021 - AP Photo/Frank Augstein

Her daughter was just a baby when she was first taken into custody but the Foreign Office advised the family to stay silent while negotiating her release behind the scenes. But it was only after Mr Ratcliffe went public that pressure was put on the UK and Iranian governments to agree a deal.

Mr Ratcliffe, writing for The Telegraph, said: “Tea and sympathy is not enough in cases of hostage taking and arbitrary detention. It is not an alternative to policy action.

“By any measure, our case was a mess. Yet the government refused to acknowledge any mistakes. Hostage diplomacy is not a problem the Government is ready to tackle.

“The Government keeps the extent of the problem opaque. Families have little information about what [it] is doing or what is going on. The Foreign Office likes to guard sensitive information – rightly – but sometimes silence just means nothing is going on.”

He said he encouraged “families to speak plainly in the media” as “the only way to get on the political radar”, adding: “Government these days is fire fighting. You have to burn to get noticed.”

Mr Ratcliffe said: “You heard of Nazanin because we insisted on it” and pointed out there were Britons still held in Iran who “don’t make the news”.

Same plight in Gaza

He said the same plight had befallen Anglo-Israelis held in Gaza. “Seven years later it has been the same for the British families of those held by Hamas. It can be triggering to see that no lessons have been learned,” wrote Mr Ratcliffe.

He said the UK’s attitude on hostages was one of “denial and opaqueness” and said his wife’s case “became a bigger mess” because of a failure to go public.

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had met Lord Cameron in the Royal box during the Wimbledon tennis championships in the summer and discussed with him the plight of political prisoners. “When she [Nazanin] met David Cameron at Wimbledon, he told her that the Government hadn’t got it right in how it handled hostage cases, and requested to meet up and discuss how it can improve,” revealed Mr Ratcliffe, adding. “I hope Lord Cameron can make good on his words to Nazanin and decide on a different course by introducing a UK office of hostage affairs.”

Mr Ratcliffe’s intervention comes ahead of a visit to the UK by Roger Carstens, the US’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, who is expected to brief MPs later this week on how Washington sets about negotiating releases.

Mr Ratcliffe’s testimony in The Telegraph is backed up by the families of British citizens held in Russia and in Hong Kong. The wife of Vladimir Kara-Murza, an Anglo-Russian activist and fierce critic of the Putin regime, has pleaded for the UK to establish a hostage affairs envoy to secure his release.

Mr Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in jail – the longest given to a political activist in post-Soviet Russia – after being charged with treason and spreading disinformation. Evgenia Kara-Murza said: “While the UK Government has imposed sanctions on those complicit in his imprisonment, there is no roadmap for his release and unless the government steps up Vladimir could die in prison.”

Sebastien Lai, whose 76-year-old father Jimmy Lai, a newspaper publisher, is in jail in Hong Kong, said: “My father only holds a British passport, and yet the Government has yet to join the call for his release in contrast with the US, the EU, UN special rapporteurs and various NGOs.”


‘Government hadn’t got it right’, David Cameron told Nazanin

Richard Ratcliffe advocates for an office of hostage affairs
Richard Ratcliffe advocates for an office of hostage affairs - Andrew Crowley

There was a time when Nazanin and I were all over the news. It is nice to be a retired hostage campaigner, and no longer be prostrating ourselves to get the Government to act, writes Richard Ratcliffe.

These days I do occasionally meet families going through a similar ordeal. There is a trust in being part of a club no one else wants to join, and a relief in now representing that there is life on the other side. But there is no advice anyone can really give each other, there is no road map. Keep going, keep hopeful, take it one day at a time. That is all any of us can do.

One part of retirement is getting to see a more human side of government, away from the combative campaigning.

The first time Nazanin met James Cleverly, he had tears in his eyes. I hadn’t realised how much until then it also mattered to him. When she met David Cameron at Wimbledon, he told her that the Government hadn’t got it right in how it handled hostage cases, and requested to meet up and discuss how it can improve.

But tea and sympathy is not enough in cases of hostage taking and arbitrary detention. It is not an alternative to policy action.

Following Nazanin’s return, there was a parliamentary inquiry on the handling of her case, and hostage diplomacy more widely. By any measure, our case was a mess. Yet the Government refused to acknowledge any mistakes in its evidence to the inquiry, or in its response to the committee’s report. Not even one. Hostage diplomacy is not a problem the Government is ready to tackle.

The Government keeps the extent of the problem opaque. Families have little information about what the Government is doing or what is going on. The Foreign Office likes to guard sensitive information – rightly – but sometimes silence just means nothing is going on.

The reluctance to recognise the problem has meant hostage diplomacy continues to grow. Iran’s actions have inspired others. We are facing a systemic issue without the systems we need to combat it.

This summer, the Government declined to accept any of the recommendations made by the Foreign Affairs Committee, including establishing a hostage envoy as they have in the US.

Speak plainly to the media

I encourage families to speak plainly in the media not because that is always the best way to impact sensitive negotiations, but because that is the only way to get on the political radar. Government these days is firefighting. You have to burn to get noticed.

Keep quiet and you get a cup of tea. But you must go public to get protected. Not all families are able to.

You heard of Nazanin because we insisted on it. But there are still Brits being held in Iran who don’t make the news these days. Families should not have to sing for the Government’s protection.

It took us over a month, and going to the media, to get a first meeting with the minister. Seven years later, it has been the same for the British families of those held by Hamas. It can be triggering to see that no lessons have been learned.

The Government should be organised better than this. Denial and opaqueness might seem like a short-term strategy, but the problem only comes back bigger. Nazanin’s case was an example of this. It just became a bigger mess. Suppression of a problem is not rational policy making. We see this in too many areas already.

People make decisions, not institutions. I hope Lord Cameron can make good on his words to Nazanin and decide on a different course by introducing a UK office of hostage affairs.


‘The UK stubborn and out of step with rest of free world’

Evgenia Kara-Murza, wife of jailed Anglo-Russian Vladimir Kara-Murza
Evgenia Kara-Murza, wife of jailed Anglo-Russian Vladimir Kara-Murza - REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

In February 2022, Vladimir Putin opened the gates to a genocidal war, war crimes, and unthinkable atrocities. Fast forward to Oct 7, we saw a terrorist organisation mirror Putin’s play book, forcibly taking over 200 hostages in Gaza. The world watched as the escalating tactic of hostage taking went unchecked, with hundreds of innocent civilians becoming pawns in a brutal game of war, writes Evgenia Kara-Murza.

Hostage taking, be it Ukrainian children or Israelis, strips nations of their futures by way of depriving individuals of theirs. By denying civilians their freedom to defend democracy, autocrats annihilate the political alternative that they represent. This is why prominent figures like Alexei Navalny or my husband, Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition politician in Russia are often seen as a direct threat to the existing regime and are targeted for assassination.

Vladimir is a fierce critic of Putin’s regime who was arrested after speaking out against Putin following the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Having survived two assassination attempts by a team of FSB operatives, Vladimir is now serving 25 years – one of the longest sentences given to Putin’s critics – in prison in a penal colony in Siberia, for speaking out against the human rights abuses of the Russian government.

While the UK Government has imposed sanctions on those complicit in his imprisonment, there is no road map for his release and unless the Government steps up Vladimir could die in prison.

The issue of political prisoners isn’t going away anytime soon – in fact, it’s only going to get worse without serious intervention. Dictators work together, learning from and adopting each other’s practices. The free world remains ill-equipped to respond, leaving room for authoritarian leaders to continue their regimes of repression more easily. We’ve seen this with criminal “diplomatic” tools like cybercrime, and how democracies kept their heads in the sand. The UK’s history of complacency must end now.

UK lacks ‘comprehensive approach’

The UK, despite British citizens like Vladimir Kara-Murza and Jimmy Lai imprisoned abroad, lacks a comprehensive approach to ensuring hostage return. Historically, the UK has refused to label individuals as “arbitrarily detained”, unlike the US, which has established a dedicated envoy for hostage affairs. If the UK follows suit, it will signal a real commitment to address the plight of citizens wrongfully detained abroad.  The current lack of a comprehensive approach, and its spectacularly varying levels of fairness, especially given the nuanced differences between hostages taken for leverage and politically motivated detention, demands the creation of an Office of Hostage Affairs.

Hostage taking does not happen in the void; it festers in an environment of prolonged impunity enjoyed by autocrats like Putin over a quarter of a century. Eventually, the free world is faced with the need to control the damage after years of ignoring or appeasing these monsters, beginning a long avoidable process had the repressive regime been prevented from growing into a monster in the first place.

My husband has long preached this message. Vladimir warned the free world against appeasing dictators, advocating for political prisoners in Russia. His fearlessness resulted in a 25-year imprisonment for denouncing the crimes of the Putin regime, a harrowing reminder that every unpunished crime strengthens a sense of brazen permissiveness in a regime, continuing a cycle of repression without fear of consequence. The UK Government must not let his advocacy be in vain.

Establishing an office of hostage affairs is the crucial first step. The Foreign Affairs Committee officially recommends this, and the Labour Party has committed to this, but the UK has long been stubborn and out of step with the rest of the free world. Citizens like Vladimir, who don’t have the luxury of time, need definitive action. The US has already reaped the benefits of a hostage affairs envoy. Roger Carstens, the current envoy, who is visiting the UK on Dec 6, has already freed half of the UK’s current number of hostages abroad.

While it is crucial to address existing cases of political persecution, the goal should be the creation of a set of tools and concerted approaches to prevent these malign practices in the future. The UK’s complacency has already let its citizens down.

Urgent and decisive action to appoint a hostage affairs envoy is the only way forward to protect citizens both at home and abroad.


Government ‘is not incapable, but unwilling’ to advocate

Sebastien Lai, who is urging UK Government to advocate for his father, Jimmy Lai
Sebastien Lai, who is urging UK Government to advocate for his father, Jimmy Lai

This December, my father [Jimmy Lai] will celebrate his 76th birthday. Instead of being surrounded by his grandchildren, he will be where he has been since December 2020: in a Hong Kong prison. This is the third year he spends a birthday away from us. We don’t know how many more he will have, writes Sebastien Lai.

My father’s “crime” was to run a newspaper that dared to be critical of the Chinese Communist Party. A trial for national security charges against him is scheduled to begin ten days after his birthday. The city’s security chief has boasted of a 100 per cent conviction rate for national security crimes. In other words, it will be a sham trial.

To grow up in Hong Kong was to be painfully aware of the difference between living in an autocracy and a democracy. My father knew this better than most. He escaped the ravages of Communist China as a 12 year-old in the 1960s to forge a life for himself in Hong Kong, where he became a textile tycoon. He could have retired decades ago and spent the rest of his days enjoying the life he had built. Instead, he started the city’s flagship pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, when Communist troops murdered their fellow countrymen who demanded democracy.

My father is the city’s only tycoon to stand up to Beijing. He continued to run his newspaper in Hong Kong in spite of decades of pressure, refusing to compromise on his beliefs, refusing to cede his voice to placate tyranny. For years, he marched on the streets with millions of his fellow citizens to demand democracy. He knew the potential consequences, but he continued to speak out anyway. Even after Beijing imposed a national security law designed to suffocate all dissent, he stood firm in his belief that Hong Kongers deserve democracy.

If only our current British administration would be as steadfast in its commitment to the democratic values that guarantee its mandate to govern. My father only holds a British passport, and yet his Government has yet to join the call for his release in contrast with the US, the EU, UN special rapporteurs and various NGOs.

Government would ‘rather stay silent’

Here in the UK, we are guaranteed the freedoms now denied to those in Hong Kong. And yet, our current administration would rather stay silent on the unjust detention of one of its citizens. This is even more shameful when my father has been detained for standing up for the freedoms promised to Hong Kongers when the British Government handed the city to China in 1997.

The British Government must hold Beijing accountable for the shredding of the Sino-British Joint Declaration that guaranteed Hong Kong’s freedoms. On top of this, it has a fundamental duty to advocate on behalf of its citizens to whom they are accountable. To neglect this is to break a promise to all who hold a British passport; it is to say your government will not protect you if you find yourself arbitrarily detained.

This is all the more true when we have clear proof that a government advocating on behalf of a detained citizen is effective. The Australian government recently secured the release of their own citizen, Cheng Lei, from a Chinese prison. She was arrested in the same month as my father’s first arrest, in August 2020. This lends itself to the incomprehensible conclusion that the current British Government is not incapable, but unwilling, to do the same.

The Government cannot afford to ignore my father’s plight any longer without damaging its moral authority. To not speak out on behalf of a citizen is to betray the liberties and values that underpin our way of life. With each passing day my father sits behind bars, he reminds those of us who enjoy freedom that it is not free – it must be protected or it erodes with every compromise. The Government must heed this warning and stop taking the cornerstone of our institutions for granted before it becomes too late.

Our attempts to secure support from the current administration has been a slow journey. Given my father’s age, I don’t know how much longer we have. I ask that the new Foreign Secretary, David Cameron, do the right thing and make it a priority to secure the release of my father.