Richard Ratcliffe: ‘What Fighting For Nazanin’s Freedom Has Taught Me’

By Aaron Walawalkar, News and Digital Editor, Jack Satchell, Film Producer 23 Apr 2020
(Left) Richard Ratcliffe on day eight of his hunger strike outside the Iranian Embassy in London in June 2019. Credit: Steve Eason / Flickr.

“We have got a lot further by remembering that even the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are people,” said Richard Ratcliffe. For more than four years, the 45-year-old has been fighting for his wife Nazanin’s release from prison in Iran. This year, there is “hope of freedom”

You might expect a person in Richard’s situation to feel resentful towards the people accused of arbitrarily detaining his wife, or towards British government officials who have so far been unsuccessful in securing her release.

But, as he spoke to EachOther from his home in London over a 50-minute video call, he displayed only empathy, compassion and kindness – qualities he said have been central to his Free Nazanin campaign.

“The Iranian Ambassador is a perfectly decent man that cares for his children,” he added. “We might have real disputes with him at points and I think he says outrageous stuff but, you know, he’s a person doing his job.

“Equally … I’ve said some choice things about some politicians and I stand by them. But they are still people who are warm and caring and sincere in their own way and trying to solve things.”

Richard Ratcliffe held a hunger strike outside the Iranian Embassy in London. Credit: Steve Eason / Flickr

It was on 3 April 2016 that former aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested by the Revolutionary Guard in Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport on her return from visiting her parents with her daughter Gabriella.

During the time that she has been held in the country’s notorious Evin prison – for charges she denies, following a “deeply unfair” trial – the world has transformed beyond recognition.

The UK has changed prime minister three times and left the European Union, after nearly tearing itself apart during almost four years of Brexit negotiations.

Donald Trump was elected US president, defying the predictions of political commentators, and in January this year would go on to order the killing of top Iranian military general Qasem Soleimani.

And now, swaths of the world’s population have been confined to home amid the deadly coronavirus pandemic which has so far claimed more than 179,000 lives worldwide.

Amid these shifting sands and geopolitical games, Nazanin is being used as a “chess piece”, Richard said. However, there is now a glimmer of hope that she will soon secure her freedom.

On Tuesday, the 41-year-old mum from London had her furlough from prison extended and is being considered for clemency, along with thousands of other prisoners temporarily released to curb the spread of Covid-19 through the country’s jails.

She must still wear an ankle tag which restricts her from moving 200m outside of her parents’ home, preventing her from seeking medical help for a number of ailments.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe wears an ankle tag following her temporarily release from prison in Iran. Credit: Richard Ratcliffe

The campaign to free Nazanin has seen Richard take her case to the UN, lobby three consecutive British foreign secretaries and hold a 15-day hunger strike outside the Iranian embassy in London.

However the couple’s story, which has featured prominently in the press, is but one of a “growing phenomenon”, Richard said.

In July 2019, an estimated 2,000 Britons were being held overseas – about 1,000 of whom without trial.

These figures are contained in a letter Richard sent to prime minister Boris Johnson last summer which was also signed by family members of other British citizens imprisoned abroad.

They have formed the British Rights Abroad Group (Brag) to call upon Parliament to enshrine a legal right to consular protection.

“Domestically in UK, you’ve got no rights,” Richard said about those people who have been jailed abroad. “It is discretionary for the government to try and solve it as they see best.

“Of course, the government’s interests are different from the individuals’ interests. We are being used as leverage to push the British government to release the money that Iran wants.

“The UK government doesn’t want to release the money, otherwise it would have released it already.”


Among those also calling for a legal right to consular protection are the relatives of Jagtar Singh Johal, who has been detained in India since November 2017, and Andy Tsege, who was detained in Ethiopia for almost four years before being released in 2018.

Another case is that of Matthew Hedges, a British academic who was held for eight months in the United Arab Emirates on spying charges and eventually sentenced to life imprisonment, before being pardoned.

Once the reunion of the Zaghari-Ratcliffe family has been secured, the Free Nazanin campaign aims to lobby MPs to bring a Bill before Parliament which would enshrine a right to consular protection.

EachOther has put its big questions to Richard, in an interview which covers everything from empathy to lasting childhood lessons.

Watch our video interview below or read the full story beneath. 

Describe what you do in 15 words or less?

Well, my day job is being an accountant. But mainly these days I campaign for my wife, Nazanin Ratcliffe, to bring her home. 

What advice would you give to a ten-year-old-you?

Our lives have taken a very strange and unexpected direction. I think just being honest with yourself and being honest with others and being respectful of others.

Some of the relationships that I had when I was ten are actually now quite important again, in a way that they weren’t five years ago. Life takes strange twists and turns. We get through it through the help of all my friends. 

When I was on hunger strike I met all my old school friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen for 30 years in some cases. Some of them were hard to recognise. We all look a bit different from how we looked when we were 10. 

What would you say was the most important lesson you learned in the last few years?

The importance of kindness. At one time I thought campaigning was about speaking with a loud voice, asserting your point and getting people to hear you. 

But actually, it’s the value of people caring and being kind and just reaching out and connecting and sharing. And I don’t think I’d appreciated how important that is for keeping you going … for resilience and for solidarity.

A lot of campaigning can feel like it’s a megaphone … but being part of a community is probably more important long term. 

Richard Ratcliffe and his daughter Gabriella

In October last year, Richard was united with his daughter Gabriella for the first time since April 2016. Credit: Richard Ratcliffe

And what about during your hunger strike?

I found that I felt hungry and rigid for the first two days but my body slowed down and I got used to it. 

I probably got slower mentally and slightly more volatile in my emotions. So I learned to not do any interviews in the evening. You’d get pretty angry stuff if you put a microphone in front of me.

We did a hunger strike in front of the embassy. We did it to be annoying … to be visible, a conspicuous kind of suffering. Nazanin was doing one inside prison, but no one could see it. It did annoy the Iranian authorities much more than I was expecting. They were trying to get the police to drive us off and they tried to build a barricade to block us off. 

It was interesting enough that we had quite a lot of media coverage come in and film and that provoked lots and lots of people to come down partly just to sort of show solidarity and to say: “listen, we’ve been following your story from afar. Lovely to meet you. Good luck, keep at it.” 

They would write a little message on the business book or on the wall. We had all sorts of people coming down and sharing their kindness and bringing flowers.

An awful lot of Iranians came down. And typically when we do demonstrations, we don’t have many Iranians there because there’s cameras there, so it’s quite exposed.

But we had so many people coming down just wanting to share their own stories … and some of their families’ stories were worse than ours. I found that a really enriching, privileging experience … to have all that kind of care and kindness. It almost felt like we were the sort of little grit in the middle and this little pearl of kindness was built around us, which was lovely. 

So, although I was getting more and more irritable and less good company it was actually a really nurturing experience.

Richard, Nazanin and Gabriella Ratcliffe. Credit: Free Nazanin campaign.

Who would play you in a movie of your life?

There is a play about Nazanin that has done a round. Someone came up to us to mock the fact that the guy who played me happened to be a lot thinner, a lot better looking, a lot taller. I would hope the same would be true in the films. 

What would you say you’re most proud of? 

I mean, we’ve not got her home. In many ways with campaigning, that’s the only test that matters. 

For me, it was important that she didn’t feel alone and that she felt that people cared for her. And that through shining a light on her story, other people in similar situations also didn’t feel alone. 

We’ve got a quite high profile on our story. There’s a risk of sucking the oxygen away from other stories. We’ve tried to say: “listen, our story is one of many, and it connects to a number. And we’re all in this together”.

I don’t think she does feel alone at all. One of the nice things about being out of prison briefly, is she read some of the cards that people have sent through Amnesty campaigns and all that lovely care. Boy, does it matter in the situation. I’m proud of having been part of that. 

You know … we’ve been a bit up and down. I’ve said some things that perhaps in retrospect would regret. But broadly, I don’t think we’ve really gone after anyone. I think we’ve campaigned the right way. I think at the end of it, she will be able to walk away with her head held high.

We’re not gonna be defined by the suffering. We’re going to be defined by the future.

Richard Ratcliffe

Is there anything you’d like to achieve which you haven’t yet?

Getting her home. But I think there are two-stages to coming home. We’ve had it with [my daughter] Gabriella as well. 

So there’s literally getting on a plane and going back. But then the journey back to normal takes some time.

I once met [British journalist] John McCarthy – who was held hostage in Lebanon, back in the 80s. His then girlfriend, Jill Morrell, campaigned very prominently for him. So when I was a little boy, that was part of the model of what you do in the situation.

It’s lovely to see someone so positive … he could make jokes about being in solitary. It was like the past was another country. That’s kind of where I want to get towards.

This is a tough experience at the moment. It defines us at the moment and in a variety of different ways. There will come a point when it doesn’t. We’ll go back to being a normal family. Different, having learned stuff and coloured in some ways. 

But yeah, we’re not gonna be defined by the suffering. We’re going to be defined by the future. I hope that we’ll get to the point where we get to the end of our days and this is not the thing we’re still talking about.

If you could immediately put right one injustice in the UK right now, what would it be? And why?

Gosh there’s so many, isn’t there? The bit that we have focussed on is around the law to change consular protection. 

At the moment, cases like ours get a lot of attention because it’s quite dramatic and because I’m able to get on Radio 4 and talk about it. There are plenty of people that are going through similar things but who perhaps speak with an accent … who don’t have an economic base when they can just go to the States to lobby.

The way in which the government is set up to deal with this is to react only if you make it a problem for them. If you’re unable to make it a problem – because you don’t get in the newspapers, you’re not treated as British, you’re treated as a foreigner – it is profoundly unfair.  The fact that there is no level playing field – only the squeaky wheels get the attention – I think that is a much bigger injustice than people realise. 

It means if you are a first generation immigrant, you’re not going to get the same access we do. We get a certain access. If we were higher up the social pecking order, we’d get better access. 

I remember a minister saying, the first time we met him, he said: “Listen, lots of these cases, they’ve got British passports, but they’re not really British.” I was really shocked that someone could say that out loud. You might think it but to actually have that as a completely normal thing to say.

There are things that affect more people. There are things, like Grenfell, that have been traumatic. There are a lot of injustices out there. But the one that our experience has taught me to follow and challenge is the unfairness in help and protection overseas.

Which is the most important human right to you?

In our case, we have had various different human rights violations. 

The right to protection from torture is probably the most important, where your level of abuse that is just beyond the pale. At some level human rights are pragmatic and minimalist, you know, what’s the bare minimum we need to have a society we can all live with? 

Well, protection from torture has to be it.  

Where people are honest and empathetic with others' perspectives, you can always find a way through.

Richard Ratcliffe speaks outside Number 10 Downing Street. Credit: YouTube / Telegraph

Where people are honest and empathetic with others' perspectives, you can always find a way through.

Do you have any ideas about how to heal the divisions in society right now?

I think the power of honesty, and the power of empathy is always central.

The very first time I went to meet Jeremy Hunt, when he was foreign secretary, I was really alienated with the government and with the world. It felt we were going nowhere and it was all useless … that everyone’s lying about everything. And, bless him, we’d given him a stone which we painted on Mother’s Day to mark Nazanin being in prison.

And he said he put this stone next to the photograph of his engagement. So he just wanted to say: “Listen, I value your family, I put it next to my family.”

He also just was honest with this kind of, you know, there was an empathy. There are always going to be disputes between people and in society. There are things that are uneven, unfair and there will be arguments for how to do it and how much should be changed.

Where people are honest and empathetic with others’ perspectives, you can always find a way through. Where people are busy triggering each other and try and provoke each other. You’re much less likely to find that.

We’ve got a lot further by remembering that even the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are people. The Iranian Ambassador is a perfectly decent man that cares for his children.

We might have real disputes with him at points and think he says outrageous stuff but, you know, he’s a person doing his job. Equally, with various projects, I’ve said some choice things about some politicians and stand by them. But they are still people who are warm and caring and sincere in their own way and trying to solve things.

Note: responses lightly edited for clarity

Second Image: Richard Ratcliffe on day eight of his hunger strike outside the Iranian Embassy in London in June 2019. Credit: Steve Eason / Flickr. All other images courtesy of Free Nazanin campaign.

How you can help

British Rights Abroad Group
British Rights Abroad Group

The British Rights Abroad Group (Brag) is a coalition of families of people from across the UK who are currently being unfairly held overseas or who have recently been release.

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