Calls for tougher action, 2,000 days since UK dual national held in Iran

London (AFP) –

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The family of British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, on Thursday marked 2,000 days since her detention in Tehran, calling on the government in London to do more to secure her release.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 43, is one of a number of Western passport holders being held by Iran in what rights groups condemn as a policy of hostage-taking aimed at winning concessions from foreign powers.

Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, and seven-year-old daughter, Gabriella, played a symbolic game of Snakes and Ladders on Parliament Square in a protest organised by Amnesty International to highlight the hopes and setbacks experienced by families of prisoners in Iran.

"It's a tough landmark, but it's also a point when you feel not forgotten," Ratcliffe told AFP of the day's events.

His wife, who worked as a project manager for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the news agency and data firm's philanthropic wing, was arrested in April 2016 while visiting family.

She was convicted of plotting to overthrow the regime, a charge she denied.

She completed that sentence in March this year, only to be slapped with a fresh one-year jail term for "propaganda against the system", treatment that the UK says amounts to torture.

Ratcliffe said he had spoken briefly that day to his wife, who is staying with her mother in Iran while she appeals against her second prison sentence and can make videocalls.

She watched Gabriella brush her hair during a "relatively upbeat" conversation, he said.

Ratcliffe urged the British government and its new foreign minister Liz Truss, who was appointed last week, to use tougher tactics against Tehran's use of "hostage diplomacy".

He and other campaigners say his wife and other dual nationals are being held as political hostages because of a long-standing dispute between London and Tehran over a failed arms deal.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested with her daughter, Gabriella, who has since returned to the UK
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested with her daughter, Gabriella, who has since returned to the UK DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS AFP

"I think the current approach to dealing with hostage-taking doesn't work and our case is testament to that, the fact that it's been allowed to last for so long," he said.

- 'Appalling ordeal' -

The government should treat such cases as "a form of organised crime", he said, using legal systems and "individual human rights sanctions".

"There's a policy gap there that needs to be addressed and part of that must be being tougher with those who are doing it," he said.

Ratcliffe said he had been reassured by attention from Truss, who this week raised the case with her Iranian counterpart on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

In a statement on Thursday, Truss condemned Zaghari-Ratcliffe's "appalling ordeal" and vowed to "continue to press until she returns home".

Gabriella delivered a petition signed by British MPs to Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Downing Street office, calling for him to secure her mother's release
Gabriella delivered a petition signed by British MPs to Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Downing Street office, calling for him to secure her mother's release DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS AFP

Truss was due to speak to Nazanin later Thursday, Ratcliffe said.

One of Truss' predecessors as foreign secretary, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was accused of jeopardising her case by mischaracterising her job.

Elika Ashoori, the daughter of another British national held by Tehran, 67-year-old Anoosheh Ashoori, said at the protest that Truss had also "called us almost immediately after she became foreign secretary".

But she added: "We have learned not to be too optimistic.

"I think this is now a time particularly for the new foreign secretary to put much stronger action behind some of the words that we've heard before," Sacha Deshmukh, interim head of Amnesty International UK, told AFP.

He urged the government to insist on the release of such prisoners as a condition for any further negotiations with Tehran, stressing that Nazanin and others held by Iran are "human beings, not pawns on a game".