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Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Volume 641: debated on Tuesday 22 May 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement regarding the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe following the new charges brought against her in Iran.

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and constancy in relation to the needs of her constituent and the families. We remain deeply concerned for all our dual national detainees in Iran, including Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and we are doing everything we can for them, including trying to secure access and ensure their welfare. We will continue to approach the case in a way that we judge is most likely to secure the outcome that we all want. Therefore, the hon. Lady and the House will forgive me if I am limited in my comments on her case and those of other dual nationals, both at the moment and in relation to any continuing developments.

The Prime Minister raised all our consular cases in a telephone call with President Rouhani on 13 May and the Foreign Secretary raised the cases in a meeting with Foreign Minister Zarif in Brussels last week. I also raised the cases with my contacts with Iran. Our ambassador in Tehran has raised concerns with the Iranians at the highest levels and spoke by telephone with Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe this Sunday. Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials are in regular contact with Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s families.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for his update, and I have a few questions for him. Will the Government make it clear today that they will condemn the new charges brought against my constituent and call for her immediate release? Ministers have said that they will not provide a running commentary on the case, but when we met the Foreign Secretary in November, he promised that he would leave no stone unturned. I press the Minister to update the house on how his strategy is being conducted in practice.

Will the Minister update the House on whether the historic debt owed by Britain to Iran has been paid, and when is the next court date scheduled? Nazanin spoke to our ambassador to Iran after meeting the judge, and she requested that he sign a formal letter of protest to the Iranian Government. Will the Minister confirm that this constitutes an overdue acceptance from the Iranian judiciary that Nazanin is indeed British? Will he say whether he anticipates that this will lead to further consular protections being granted? Will he today confirm that the ambassador will send the note of protest that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has requested? Will the Minister press the Iranian authorities to allow Nazanin temporary release to spend Gabriella’s—her daughter who went with her to Iran—fourth birthday with her?

I finish by saying that I bring these questions to the House in good faith. All we want in West Hampstead is for Nazanin to return home. All our constituents, including her husband, Richard, who is in the Public Gallery today, believe that Nazanin is innocent. She is British, and she deserves to know what her Government are doing to secure her release and to reunite her with her families back home.

I refer to remarks I made earlier about how we intend to conduct the case and the answers that I can give to the hon. Lady’s questions. We remain of the assessment that a private, rather than public, approach is most likely to result in progress in Nazanin’s case and ultimately, her release, which is all any of us want.

I can answer one or two questions. On diplomatic protection, the FCO is in discussion with Mr Ratcliffe and his legal representatives on the merits of a claim for diplomatic protection. It would be remiss of me to comment any further until these discussions have concluded. I am not making any comments about the charges or anything similar.

As I have said, our ambassador spoke to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe on Sunday. He assured her that we continue to prioritise the case and do everything we can to bring about her release, including requesting consular access, requesting access to medical reports and requesting a temporary furlough so that she can indeed celebrate Gabriella’s birthday with her family.

On the International Military Services issue, we do not share the view that the IMS debt or any other bilateral issue is the reason for Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention. The UK has always been clear, both publicly and in private discussions with Iran, that the two issues are entirely separate, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has publicly stated on several occasions that there is no link. We will meet our legal obligations in relation to the debt, and funding to settle the debt was transferred to the High Court several years ago.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that Foreign Office advice relies on the fact that this experience is a powerful corrective to any notion of dual nationals that they might return to Iran?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. We publish our advice on travel to Iran on our website—it is public—and the issue of dual nationals is specifically mentioned.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. It is deeply regrettable that we need to be standing here again asking an urgent question on the plight of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. It was only in November last year that the shadow Foreign Secretary—my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry)—tabled an urgent question on the case of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, yet sadly here we are once more.

This week’s events only further highlight the pressing need for urgent action to end the arbitrary and illegal detention without due process of a British citizen who has been incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin prison since April 2016. The Iranian judiciary has now brought a second false charge against Nazanin and has denied her access to a lawyer. However, even to this day, the Government have yet formally to call for her release. They have stated that they have raised the concerns of Nazanin’s family with the Iranian Government, but have not formally called for her release. Is that not the lowest possible expectation a British citizen can have of their Government, and should not the Minister call for her release today?

However, it is good to hear that for the first time since her arrest, Nazanin was allowed direct contact with the UK embassy in Tehran. What is the Minister’s assessment of this development? Does he believe that it signals that the Iranian regime is finally starting to treat Nazanin as a British citizen? What action has the British embassy in Iran taken to ensure that Nazanin is able to access the legal support, including access to a lawyer, to which she is entitled during any further hearings?

The Foreign Secretary has repeatedly mentioned that he has spoken to his counterpart, Foreign Minister Zarif, about these issues, but he will know as much as anyone that Nazanin’s fate ultimately lies with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Will the Minister of State today explain what pressure has been placed on the IRGC to ensure Nazanin’s release? Has the Foreign Secretary actually made any efforts to meet those elements in the regime who are really responsible for Nazanin’s detention in order to call for her release?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions, but I am unable and unwilling to answer many of them—in the circumstances I outlined earlier, it would not be appropriate—and I know he would not press me to deal with the detail of the negotiations and their handling between us and the Iranian Government in such a sensitive case. I can well understand the reasons for the questions, which were all perfectly fair, as were those of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), but their position is different from mine in terms of dealing with the answers.

Like everyone, I share the sense of regret that we still have to discuss this in the way we do—even though we are limited in how we can talk about it—but I can only repeat the assurances I gave a moment ago: at the highest levels here in the UK, with the Prime Minister’s call to President Rouhani and the Foreign Secretary’s intervention, and through our ambassador’s interventions, we continue to call for access and the temporary furlough. We are doing all we can in our belief that this is the right way to handle this delicate situation. I do not think it would be appropriate or helpful, however, to deal with some of the hon. Gentleman’s questions.

There is no indication yet of any change in the attitude of the Iranian authorities towards Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s status, and we are having to work with what we have, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that no conversation goes by at any senior level in which these issues are not raised. Our consular team handle this very carefully, and representations will continue to be made, but as I indicated, to deal with every single part of this would not be the appropriate way to help Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her families.

The shocking news reported last night that a judge in Iran has told the jailed British-Iranian teacher, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, that he expects her to be convicted on a new charge of

“spreading propaganda against the regime”

is truly appalling. As Amnesty International has stated,

“this is yet another body blow for Nazanin”,

who, we must remember, has denied all the charges brought against her. Can the Minister confirm that the future of Nazanin is not enmeshed in the long-standing British debt of more than £300 million and that this has been agreed by both Governments? Does he also agree that now is the time to issue a demarche, as Nazanin discussed with the UK ambassador, given the treatment she has so far received and does he further agree that she has already been subjected to a blatantly unfair trial and sentence? Finally, will he now agree to significantly escalate the UK Government’s response to Nazanin’s plight by asking for the Prime Minister’s personal intervention so that this further injustice can be brought to an end swiftly? This has been going on for far too long.

Of course I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s last remark about the time. First, as I indicated earlier, there is no link between the debt owed by the UK and the dual national cases. Secondly, it is not appropriate at this stage to deal with the detail of any particular type of contact between the embassy and the Iranian Government. On escalating the matter still further, the Prime Minister has already raised the matter, which is being handled at the highest level by the British Government.

As a result of Nazanin’s treatment in prison, Redress has written to many of us asking for the intervention of the UN special rapporteur on torture. What action will the UK Government take to protect Nazanin from any further torture and ill treatment and to ensure she receives an independent medical examination and any necessary treatment in compliance with international law? Does the Minister agree with Redress that the UN special rapporteur should intervene?

I thank the Minister for his answer to the urgent question. Does he not agree that the time has come to use all our diplomatic influence, and can he confirm what action we can take with our allies collectively to bring about an end to the brutal emotional and physical persecution—it is nothing short of that—of Mrs Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe?

As always, the hon. Gentleman speaks from the heart, and his point certainly needs to be considered in this case. The humanitarian circumstances have been made clear to the Iranian authorities. This is a woman separated from her child some time ago. As the House knows, I have met the daughter and family in Tehran, and I am well aware of the circumstances. We make the case on the humanitarian basis as much as we can to indicate the pathway forward, and the UK will continue to do so in a manner that the House would expect and understand.

When we had a debate on this matter in Westminster Hall last July, I was not the only MP who said that many of their constituents were really exercised by the plight of this lady. I still get emails from constituents about it. Am I really in a position to assure them that the British Government are doing everything they can?

The short answer, as I said earlier to the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), is yes. It is difficult to explain to constituents who would like to believe that the answer to everything happening abroad lies here, but it does not. We will do everything we can, and are doing so, not only in this case but in the cases of other dual nationals. We will not know how successful that is until the happy day when she and others are released.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for her tenacity on behalf of her constituent. Last November, I asked the Foreign Secretary whether he was willing to hold discussions with the Iranian authorities about their targeting of the BBC Persian service—not only journalists in the UK but their families in Iran. There are real fears for their safety. Can the Minister update the House?

Yes, I can assure the hon. Lady, whose own tenacity in other respects also deserves commendation, that the issues affecting the BBC Persian service have been raised directly both by the Foreign Secretary and me. We are conscious of the pressures under which they work and the diligence with which they go about their duties, and I can assure her that those matters are indeed raised.

Last year, I met Redress, which has been mentioned already, to discuss not just this case but that of Andy Tsege. It published a report in January saying that more than 100 British citizens a year were reporting being mistreated in jails abroad and not being provided with the humanitarian or consular assistance that the British Government should be giving them. It also says that there is inconsistency in the support provided, particularly for dual nationals. What can the Minister do to assure us that any British national, whether a dual national or not, will receive the same consular support if they find themselves in that position?

They are certainly offered all the same support, but the blunt fact is that not all states treat dual nationals the same: some recognise dual nationality and allow access to the UK authorities, others do not accept it and treat the dual national solely as a national of their own state. In those circumstances, they do not believe they are required to give access. I can assure the hon. Lady, however, that in each and every case the UK Government make exactly the same representations seeking access, because we believe that dual nationality means what it says: dual nationality, not sole nationality.[Official Report, 4 June 2018, Vol. 642, c. 1MC.]

Taking on board the lessons of the mistakes made in this case, will the Government review how they deal with such situations in the future to ensure that no other British citizen has to go through the misery that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family are experiencing at the moment?

I wish I could give the hon. Lady the assurance she seeks, but the decisions of foreign courts and states and their impact on UK nationals are not always within the power of the UK to resolve at the speed or in the way we would wish. I can assure her that, as any contact between colleagues and our consular officials should make clear, although every case is individual, note is taken of how cases are handled in particular states so that if there are lessons to learn, they are learned. As I have said, we are sometimes dealing with situations that are not entirely within the United Kingdom’s control, and each case may need to be handled with a different degree of dexterity. People are released from foreign detention every day, unknown to the House, unknown to the press, known only to their families and sometimes to us, so not everything is done publicly; but everything that the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and our consular service try to do is for the best in terms of their welfare.