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Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Volume 702: debated on Monday 25 October 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs to make a statement on my constituent Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

It is indefensible and unacceptable that Iran has rejected Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s appeal against the new charges made against her. We continue to call on Iran to let her return home to the UK immediately. On 22 September, the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Iranian Foreign Minister to make clear our deep concern about the ongoing situation of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, alongside the continued detention of Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz. Iran must release British dual nationals who have been arbitrarily detained so that they can return home.

The Foreign Secretary spoke to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Richard Ratcliffe on 16 and 17 October respectively. Earlier this month, I spoke to the families of arbitrarily detained dual British nationals and reiterated that the UK Government, from the Prime Minister down, remain fully committed to doing everything we can to help them to return home. We also called for humanitarian treatment of detained British dual nationals. Their welfare remains a top priority for us. We lobby on health concerns and mistreatment allegations whenever we have specific concerns or a family member brings issues to our attention. We call on the Iranian Government immediately to allow health professionals into Evin prison to assess the situation of dual British nationals incarcerated there. We continue to raise their cases at the most senior levels and discuss them at every opportunity with our Iranian counterparts. Our ambassador in Tehran regularly raises our dual national detainees with the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office provides consular assistance to the families of British dual nationals detained in Iran wherever they seek our support.

The UK Government continue to engage with international partners and directly with the Government of Iran on a full range of issues of interest to the UK. Our priorities remain to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability, to promote stability and security in the region, and to secure the full release of our dual national detainees. I can assure this House that the safety and welfare of all British dual nationals detained in Iran remains a top priority for the UK Government. We will continue to raise our concerns with our Iranian interlocutors at every level, and we will not stop until those who have been detained unjustly are at home with their loved ones.

I thank Mr Speaker’s office and you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for granting this urgent question. It is my eighth urgent question on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe since she was detained five harrowing years ago in Iran on false charges.

You may remember, Madam Deputy Speaker, that only two years ago Nazanin’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, was on hunger strike outside the Iranian embassy in solidarity with his wife, who was doing the same in Evin prison in Iran. Today, Richard is on hunger strike on the Foreign Secretary’s doorstep in Whitehall, pleading with her and the Prime Minister to do more to challenge Iran’s hostage-taking and to bring Nazanin home to be reunited with him and their daughter Gabriella. I think all Members across this House will realise that going on hunger strike is the absolute last resort for anyone. Richard has told me that he feels that there is no other option left because our Government’s response to his wife’s case has been pitiful.

Earlier this month, Nazanin was told that the Iranian judiciary had upheld a new one-year prison sentence and a further one-year travel ban that she had been given. This was just the latest escalation from Iran in this five-year ordeal, and yet again we do not feel that it has triggered any robust action from the UK. I know there was hope for a diplomatic solution just before summer, but these false dawns have actually made the situation worse for Nazanin and her husband.

I know that the Minister means well, that he is well versed on this case, and that he has been supportive of my constituent, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and her husband Richard, who has come to the Gallery today to listen to this urgent question. I want to ask the Minister specifically about four asks from Nazanin’s family. Will he acknowledge that Nazanin is a hostage of the Iranian state? Will the Government bring forward Magnitsky sanctions against those involved in this hostage taking and challenge Iran on it in the courts? Will the Government finally fulfil the promise of resolving the £400 million debt that we as a country owe Iran? Will he work to secure a commitment to end hostage taking in negotiations around the Iran nuclear deal?

I urge the Minister, for Nazanin’s sake, for Richard’s sake, for Gabriella’s sake and for the sake of all British citizens imprisoned in Iran or at risk of being taken hostage, to commit to a robust response to Iran and a proper rescue plan for Nazanin.

I commend the hon. Lady for the passion with which she promotes the interest of her constituents. I know other Members in the House also have an interest. I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like for the families of those incarcerated in Iran, and I understand the universal desire to get these British dual nationals home. I assure her that the UK continues to have this as one of our top priorities. It is the focus of all the conversations we have with Iran. She will understand that a range of sanctions is already imposed against individuals and entities in Iran from the UK and international bodies. Of course the Iranian regime would love to connect the cases of these British dual nationals with the international military services debt. We regard it as unhelpful to reinforce that link. We make the point very clearly that British dual nationals must not be used as a means of diplomatic leverage. Therefore, we continue to call on Iran to do the right thing, to release all the British dual nationals in incarceration and to allow them to come home to their families and loved ones.

Can the Minister tell the House roughly how many British dual nationals are being held captive in Iran, and how many of them chose to go there after the ordeal of this poor lady began so many years ago? What advice would he give to any British dual nationals thinking of going to Iran in the future?

The UK travel advice on Iran has remained consistent for some time. We strongly advise against all travel to Iran. Our ability to offer consular support, for the very reasons that we have discussed here, is severely limited. My right hon. Friend will forgive me if I choose not to disclose how many people we believe are in incarceration. Our view is that, while that might be frustrating to many, it is sometimes better that we exert the pressure that we exert quietly, rather than publicly.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on securing this urgent question and on the sterling work she is doing on behalf of her constituent, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Six months ago, my hon. Friend secured a similar debate on the second sentence Nazanin was given by the Iranian authorities. Now, Nazanin has lost her appeal to overturn that spurious conviction and faces the prospect of returning to prison, where we know conditions are very poor. This means she may not see her husband and young daughter until 2023. Yesterday, her husband Richard Ratcliffe began, as we have heard, a hunger strike outside the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. When I met Richard earlier today, he showed his courage and determination, and he made clear to me that he was taking this action because he has lost faith in the Government’s broken strategy.

After over 2,000 long days, it is surely time for the Government to fundamentally rethink their whole approach to Nazanin’s predicament and the predicament of the other dual nationals who are in a similar position. Last week, in reply to questions from my hon. Friend and me in a Westminster Hall debate, the Minister said that the Government remain absolutely committed to securing the full release of Nazanin and the other imprisoned dual nationals. The new Foreign Secretary has said that she will continue to “press Iran” on the issue.

My question today is straightforward: what precisely is the Government’s strategy for bringing Nazanin and the others home? Words are not enough. It is surely time for the Government to take real and robust action.

I understand the frustration that is clearly in the hon. Gentleman’s voice and I assure him that that is echoed by everyone involved in the situation. The incarceration of British dual nationals is down to Iran. The most recent charges brought against Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe are as spurious as the original charges and we demand that the Iranian regime releases her. I assure him that we are exploring every option. I assure him that, if he were able to come up with specific ideas that we had not already explored, they would be listened to and taken seriously. I also assure him, however, that we have explored and continue to explore every option to secure the release of all the British dual nationals currently held in incarceration in Iran.

I warmly commend the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for securing the urgent question and for her indefatigability in keeping the issue to the fore. We were in a Westminster Hall debate last week where she was notably passionate in her prosecution. For the record, I do not doubt the diligence of the Minister on the subject; I think it has been raised a number of times with the Iranians. Despite all the good intentions and cross-party unity, however, we have not seen progress; arguably, we have seen reversals. What sort of toothless tiger cannot get its nationals back from an overseas regime that has taken them hostage? We need to call a spade a spade.

We have an opportunity for progress with President Raisi coming to COP in Glasgow in a matter of days. Will the UK Government take the opportunity of having him in Scotland to hold talks about the issue? If not, why on earth are we contemplating having the head of a regime that is holding UK nationals hostage on our soil?

I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the release of British dual nationals is part of every conversation that we have with the Iranian regime at every level. I remind the House that, ultimately, that is the responsibility not of those people in incarceration or of this Government, but wholly, solely and exclusively of the Iranian regime. The detention of those people is completely illegitimate and unfounded, and they need to be released immediately.

I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for granting the urgent question and I thank the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for doggedly pursuing the issue, both of which say that the House will not give up on Nazanin. I find it disappointing that those of us who have taken an interest in the case could have written what the Minister said, because we hear the same thing over and over again.

I want to push one of the questions that has already been asked. As part of the joint comprehensive plan of action negotiations, is the end to hostage taking one of the things that the Government are going to press? We have to keep pushing at every available avenue and that is clearly on the table and needs to be explored. Can the Minister give us an update on that?

As I have said, we do not accept the notion that arbitrarily incarcerating British dual nationals should be used as a point of leverage in negotiations. The suspended negotiations taking place in Vienna are about ensuring that we do not ever see a nuclear-armed Iran. Our position on that is consistent and unwavering, and we will not allow Tehran to distract us from that course of action. Our position is straightforward and simple: the people in incarceration should be released without condition, not as part of some negotiation, but because they are not in any way responsible for the charges that have been brought against them.

The concern behind the UQ of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) today and behind Mr Ratcliffe’s recent hunger strike is that the issue of British prisoners abroad is not really the top priority for the Foreign Office. I ask the Minister to review the correspondence that we have had recently in relation to the case of Luke Symons—it is related in some ways through the Iranian connection—who is incarcerated in Sana’a by the Houthis, and also the correspondence my constituent Bob Cummings has had with his Department regarding that case to see whether he really feels, when he looks at it, that it indicates that the quality of attention that is required in these cases of British prisoners improperly and illegally incarcerated overseas is really being given by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I hope he would agree to do that and review that correspondence.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the point that he has raised. I can assure him that, on my recent visit to Oman, I raised this case with the Omani Foreign Minister, with whom I have a very good relationship, in an attempt to get a message across to the Houthis, who have in recent times stepped back from direct engagement with the UK Government. When I spoke directly with the Houthis, I raised the case of Luke, and we regularly raise the case of British dual nationals when we have conversations with those countries that are either directly involved or able to act as intermediaries for our message. But I can assure him that this is a topic of conversation that I have consistently with the Foreign Secretary and we consistently have with the Iranians and other countries that might be able, as I say, to act as intermediaries for that message. It remains a top priority of this Government.

I have just had the honour of speaking to Richard Ratcliffe, as I did two years ago when he was on hunger strike outside the Iranian embassy. I also want to commend my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for her eighth urgent question on this matter. Can the Minister just set out how, or if, we are using our international partnerships to try to bring an end to this dreadful situation?

The right hon. Lady raises an important point. I can assure her that we speak about this issue, as I say, directly with the Iranian regime, but also with other countries, both in the region and those friends and allies that we have in Europe and in the United States of America. We will not rest in our efforts to bring British dual nationals home not because questions are raised in the House or exchanged in correspondence, but because it is the right thing for us to do. We do not need to be pressured into doing this. This is what we choose to do because it is the right thing to do, and I can assure her and the House that it will remain a priority until they are all able to come home.

I am sure all of us send our solidarity to Richard, who is having to go on a second sit-out outside the FCDO this evening and for the coming days. I send my solidarity to him and his daughter, and to Nazanin. Further to calls for the Government to set out a comprehensive strategy to secure the release and return to the UK of dual nationals such as Nazanin and Anoosheh Ashoori, Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof, can the Minister tell us what discussions the Prime Minister has had to secure the release of state-taken UK dual nationals as a matter of urgency with his Iranian counterpart?

Obviously, the majority of the interactions with Iran take place within the FCDO at ministerial level, and I can assure the hon. Member that the Prime Minister takes a very keen interest in this, as does the Foreign Secretary and as do I. I can only repeat what I have said previously: the Government will not rest until we have secured the release and repatriation of these incarcerated British dual nationals.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for securing this urgent question, and thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for granting it. The Minister knows of my constituent only too well—Anoosheh Ashoori—because he continues to be held alongside Nazanin. He was recently denied conditional release without a hearing. I am not sure if the Minister is aware of that. His daughter Elika said:

“The fate of our family is at the mercy of the UK government. They…will decide whether we see our dad in the near future or when he is an old man in his 70s having wasted a decade of his life in…jail.”

Can the Minister say to me whether my constituent Anoosheh Ashoori will be granted diplomatic protection?

I understand the frustration felt by the families of those who have been incarcerated in Iran, but the fault is with the Iranian Government. We will continue to work to secure their release, and to do everything that we believe is in the best interests of getting their release. Ultimately, however, the blame lies with the Iranian regime, and we should never lose sight of that. They are the ones who brought about these illegitimate charges, who are incarcerating British dual nationals, and who have the exclusive power to release them, and they should.

I commend and thank the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for her press appearance—she is much admired by many in this Chamber. Recent news from Nazanin’s husband has confirmed the impact that imprisonment is having on her mental health and stability, and that is little wonder when we see a glimpse of the way that this British citizen is living, ever aware that Members of the House had thought to secure her freedom, only for that to be thwarted. What steps is the Minister prepared to take to secure her freedom once and for all, and to send a message that this nation, this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, will protect her own?

It is not always possible, particularly in fast-moving and sensitive negotiations such as those we are engaged with in Iran, to go into every detail in the House, and I beg the indulgence of the House to understand that. I assure the hon. Gentleman, as I have said to others, that this issue remains an absolute priority for the Government, and the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I will take every opportunity to raise it directly with the Iranians and seek the proper, permanent release of all British dual nationals currently held in arbitrary detention in Iran.

Bill Presented

Social Media Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Rehman Chishti presented a Bill to make provision about hate speech on social media; to require social media platforms to verify the identity of their users; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the first time; to be read a Second time on Friday 14 January 2022, and to be printed (Bill 173).