Richard Ratcliffe: Boris Johnson broke a promise - and my wife remains a hostage

Watch: Richard Ratcliffe's desperate plea to Boris Johnson

Richard Ratcliffe has issued an urgent plea to Boris Johnson to stick to his word and help free his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been detained in Iran for over five years.

Yahoo News UK spoke to Mr Ratcliffe outside the Foreign Office, where he has entered the 18th day of a hunger strike to draw attention to his wife's case.

Mr Ratcliffe appeared noticeably thinner and frail, at times slurring his words.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national, was captured by the Iranian authorities during a family visit with her daughter in 2016 on charges of plotting to overthrow its government. The family have consistently denied the claims against her.

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In 2017 the then-foreign secretary, Boris Johnson inflamed the situation by falsely claiming she was "teaching people journalism" in the country - which prompted the Iranian government to use his words as evidence against Zaghari-Ratcliffe amid claims she was engaged in "propaganda against the regime".

Mr Ratcliffe says his wife, with whom he shares a daughter, Gabriella, is being held “hostage” due to the UK owing a £400 million debt to Iran over a failure to deliver Chieftain tanks ordered by the Shah of Iran before he was overthrown in 1979. An international arbitration process in 2008 ruled that the UK owes Iran the debt.

Richard Ratcliffe
Richard Ratcliffe, husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, has been on hunger strike for nearly three weeks (Yahoo News UK)
Gabriella Ratcliffe is seen holding a photo during the session. The meeting with journalists took place at Parliament Square to mark Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's 2000th day of being detained in Iran. (Photo by Thomas Krych / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
Gabriella Ratcliffe (pictured), 7, was 22 months old when her mother was detained in Iran. (PA Images)

Mr Ratcliffe says the prime minister has pledged to pay the debt, but has yet to follow through with his promise.

"My message to Boris Johnson, is really that he just needs to take responsibility: the first job of the prime minister is to protect British citizens, all of them," he told Yahoo News UK.

"He, in our case, famously made some mistakes in parliament he also then promised to the Iranians that he was going to settle the debt that's led to Nazanin being held.

"Four years later he hasn't done that, we're still held, we're still subject to all sorts of abuse.

"He needs to take seriously the promises he makes, and to keep them."

Since her detention, her family have campaigned tirelessly for her return and urged the UK government to put pressure on the Iranian government to secure her release.

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Richard Ratcliffe says he has met Boris Johnson personally in the past but is yet to see any real action. (Yahoo News UK)

A report by psychiatrists earlier this year said Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in "urgent need of psychiatric support" and said she was suffering with serious post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder after being tortured in prison.

Anneliese Dodds, Labour's shadow minister for women and equalities, visited the site of Ratcliffe's hunger strike and told Yahoo News UK there that the prime minister bore some responsibility and called on the government to do more to rescue Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

"I remember being in the House of Commons and calling upon him simply to say sorry, to accept that he had been wrong, that he misspoke," she said.

"And when he described the situation of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, he was unwilling to do that - even although it was very clear that she had nothing to do with what she's been accused of.

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Richard Ratcliffe's hunger strike is on the pavement outside the foreign office near the Houses of Parliament. (Yahoo News UK)

"He very easily could have set the record straight but decided not to."

However, she added that the key thing is to get Zaghari-Ratcliffe home and wanted to move forward.

"I'm not really interested in trying over spilt milk, I want to know what the UK government is going to do right now, to be really pushing her case very strongly - and the case of human rights, fighting for all women, including those in Iran."

Wearing thermals and sitting in a fold-up chair on the pavement in Whitehall, Ratcliffe said his wife's case was part of a broader issue of lack of accountability in politics following the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal.

"It does seem there is a rife problem with lack of accountability with one rule for them and one rule for us," he said.

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Richard Ratcliffe described a "moral vacuum" in the heart of the government. (Yahoo News UK)

"In our end of things, which is British citizens held overseas, Nazanin in particular - so we’re held on government debt and that’s been allowed to happen for for years, that’s extraordinary.

"The moral compass there - the moral vacuum there - is extraordinary.

"The ministers have all known it, and yet they’ve allowed it to happen.”

The foreign office say they are doing "all they can" to help Zaghari-Ratcliffe's release from Iran, and have condemned her detention.

"Iran's decision to proceed with these baseless charges against Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is an appalling continuation of the cruel ordeal she is going through," said a spokesperson.

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Richard Ratcliffe said there was a "moral vacuum" at the heart of government. (Yahoo News UK)

"Instead of threatening to return Nazanin to prison, Iran must release her permanently so she can return home.

"We are doing all we can to help Nazanin get home to her young daughter and family and we will continue to press Iran on this point."

Ratcliffe disagrees: “The hard part is that there’s not been a way of challenging that [rhetoric], and the government are saying they’re doing all they can and parliament by and large has bought it," he said, and also sought to highlight that his wife was not alone in her plight.

"There are so many things that could change in the country, there are so many things that could change in relation to the UK and how it treats its citizens overseas."

The Catch-up sign up
The Catch-up sign up

He added that he'd chosen to go on hunger strike during COP26 at a time when the world's attention is on the country as politicians, public figures, and journalists arrive to the UK for the climate summit.

"I think part of being on hunger strike is aiming to shame them he said," he said.

"It's aiming to be shaming them in the middle of a landmark event this year, in front of their doorstep, and to say: 'listen, we're not going away, you can't brush this under the carpet, your job is to keep people safe, and ultimately he's the prime minister.'"

Watch: Richard Ratcliffe visited by celebrity presenters on day 16 of hunger strike