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“Are you sure you want to see him?” I asked Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in March, after we received an invitation to meet the prime minister, Boris Johnson. Anoosheh Ashoori, who was also detained in Iran – in his case in 2017 – and released alongside Nazanin in March has so far turned down his own invitation, calling it opportunistic, and I wondered if Nazanin felt similarly.
I’ll admit I was surprised to be included in the invitation to No 10. I hadn’t exactly minced my words about the government’s handling of Nazanin’s case.
“Yes, I want to tell him what happened to me,” she replied.
We later discussed what we wanted to raise: Morad Tahbaz’s case; the issue of hostage-taking; and the forthcoming select committee inquiry into her case. Nazanin also reiterated that she wanted Johnson to know how his blunder in 2017, where he incorrectly stated that she had been “training journalists” in Iran, had affected her.
Finally the day came, and the family and I were ushered into No 10. Niceties were exchanged and Johnson gave Nazanin’s seven-year-old daughter, Gabriella, a puzzle, which she promptly started putting together in the corner of the room.
There was little time for small talk. After graciously thanking him for paying the historic £400m debt that Britain owed Iran, Nazanin asked why it had taken six long years to do so, adding that her interrogators had made clear from her second week in prison that this was the price of her freedom. Johnson looked decidedly uncomfortable, saying that making the actual payment had been “complicated”.
Undeterred, Nazanin kept going. She said his words in 2017 were constantly used against her; that her interrogators tormented her, insisting that her own foreign secretary knew she was guilty; and that she was reminded of this until the very last day she left Iran.
“I lived in the shadow of your words for four-and-a-half years, prime minister.”
There was pin-drop silence in the room. I watched Johnson intently and waited for an apology. And waited.
After a pause, Nazanin went on to share courageously some of what she was subjected to during her incarceration – that the guards told her they would kill her and bury her; that she would never see her daughter again; the solitary confinement room that set off her claustrophobia; being driven to hunger strikes. “If you ripped my skin off, you would see the deep scars on my soul,” she said.
What struck me most was how eloquently and calmly Nazanin came across. She was in control, speaking with brutal honesty but from the heart. It was impressive to watch.
Having been in the world of politics for a long time, I know how difficult it can be to speak truth to power, especially in an imposing setting like No 10. Nazanin is an ordinary citizen who was a guest of the prime minister, in his house, and she broke all the conventions. She did it because she has nothing to lose. As she pointed out, she already lost six years of her life for a crime she didn’t commit, missing a significant part of her daughter’s childhood.
Nazanin also asked the prime minister whether he would provide evidence to the foreign affairs select committee inquiry. He said he would “look into the options” for doing so. He sounded positive, which was encouraging, so I will continue to push for this.
I sincerely hope the inquiry will get to the bottom of why it took six years to pay a legitimate debt – a decision that could have been taken in 2016 and saved Nazanin six years of imprisonment. I want to know why ministers failed to resolve this for so long and tried so hard to hide the reasons from parliament and the public.
The inquiry must also shed light on why the government still refuses to acknowledge Iran’s hostage-taking and why British citizens like Morad Tahbaz are still imprisoned in Iran, despite the deal to get him released on furlough. Our government is clearly getting this profoundly wrong; Nazanin and others who are suffering as a result deserve to know why.
As we left No 10, Nazanin revealed that she felt guilty “every day” that detainees like Morad Tahbaz were still incarcerated while she was roaming around London freely. She said she wouldn’t rest until they were freed. I marvelled at this incredible woman’s tenacity.
While I am grateful for the time the prime minister gave us, we have been asked many times since whether he apologised in the end. No. He didn’t say sorry to Nazanin. He actually didn’t say anything at all in that regard. His silence made me wonder whether he has ever been spoken to like that before, or ever been held accountable so directly. Was he completely caught off guard? While Nazanin didn’t ask for an apology, I personally struggle to understand why Johnson didn’t take the opportunity to apologise for a mistake he had definitely made. Anyone else I know would have. Did he simply believe that Nazanin, who paid the price for Britain’s historic debt, was going to come into his house, thank him profusely, drink tea and leave?
Perhaps a simple sorry could have brought Nazanin some closure in her unimaginable ordeal.
Tulip Siddiq is the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn