[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]
Before I call Tulip Siddiq, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that there are active legal proceedings in the High Court between International Military Services Ltd and Iran’s Ministry of Defence. I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on matters sub judice to allow full reference to those proceedings as they concern issues of national importance.
Colleagues, it will not have escaped your attention that the debate is massively over-subscribed. Many of you will be disappointed, but you are here showing your support, so thank you. If you intervene on colleagues and you are down to speak, you may be moved off the speakers list, because we will only get to 15 or 16 of you. There will be a three-minute limit on speeches after Tulip Siddiq has spoken.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. A lot of Members will be well versed with the details of my constituent’s case. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been unlawfully detained in Iran for nearly six years now, separated from her young daughter and her family. She served the first five years of her first sentence and was then put under house arrest at her parents’ house, wearing an ankle tag. She then faced another charge and was sentenced to another year, and then a year’s travel ban—effectively, two more years of being separated from her family in London.
Nazanin appealed the sentence of her second case, which was rejected. At that time, her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, decided to go on hunger strike. I say to Members across the House that no one goes on hunger strike on a whim. Richard Ratcliffe went on hunger strike because he felt that he had no other option, and that this was his last resort. He went on hunger strike for three weeks outside the Foreign Office in order to capture the attention of those in the upper echelons of Government, because he does not think that they are helping with his wife’s plight. I am disappointed that in the three weeks during which Richard was starving himself outside the Foreign Office, the Prime Minister of our country did not come to visit him.
Has the Prime Minister met my hon. Friend and Richard in recent years? What has his personal intervention been in this case? Does he keep in touch with my hon. Friend? Has he shown the leadership and compassion needed in this case?
The Prime Minister did meet us shortly after becoming Prime Minister, but he has not done so in recent years. After dealing with this case for nearly six years, having tabled eight urgent questions in the House, and having dealt with five Foreign Secretaries and countless Ministers, I think it is high time that the Prime Minister, knowing the details, got involved properly.
These sentiments are shared entirely by my constituents. Like many Members here today, I have been overwhelmed by messages of support for Nazanin, Richard and the whole family. All urge the Government to act and to show solidarity with the whole family in wanting Nazanin to be freed. Could my hon. Friend please convey that to the family?
Richard Ratcliffe is in the Gallery and will have heard that message directly from my hon. Friend. This campaign has touched everyone, regardless of where they are in the country. A lot of Members will know that my constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn is one of affluence and deprivation. When I am in Hampstead, Emma Thompson will stop me and ask, “Have you got Nazanin home?” When I am campaigning in the south Kilburn estates, people will open the door and say, “What good are you if you haven’t got that poor woman home yet?” The campaign has touched everyone; my hon. Friend is right to make that point.
I commend the hon. Lady for her excellent campaign. She deserves every credit. The USA has agreed to pay around $1.4 billion in moneys owed to Iran, even though it supports the sanctions against Iran. Does she agree that the UK should follow the USA’s decision by paying the £400 million, thereby ensuring Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s immediate release?
The hon. Gentleman has appeared at every single debate we have had on Nazanin. I thank him for all his efforts in the campaign. I will come to the debt and getting our constituents back home.
It goes without saying that the reason why my constituent is imprisoned in Iran is because of the Iranian regime. It is because of them that my constituent is away from her young family. But in six years of dealing with our Government, I have become increasingly frustrated that Ministers are ignoring the elephant in the room, which is the fact that this case is now linked to the £400 million that this country owes Iran. That is not something I want to deal with, but it is the reality of the situation. It is becoming obvious that the Iranians see the £400 million that we owe as a pre-condition to releasing Nazanin.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She said “constituents” and she is absolutely right. Nobody in this room has anything but compassion for Richard Ratcliffe and his family, but there are other constituents who are dual nationals who also need the help of the British Government. Does she agree that they are living under the most awful regime and that has to be a priority?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will mention the other dual nationals who are imprisoned in Iran. As he says, Nazanin is not the only one.
I want to go back to the question of the debt before I take another intervention. When Nazanin was captured and put in solitary confinement in Evin prison, she was told by prison guards that the reason she was being held was because of our failure to pay this historic debt. Former President Rouhani told our Prime Minister in March this year that accelerating the payment on the debt would solve a lot of the problems in the bilateral relationship between Iran and our country. Iran’s former Foreign Minister Zarif also cited the debt in an article. There is no question but that the debt is linked to Nazanin’s case.
We have seen that it is not a coincidence: every time there is any movement on the IMS court hearing, there is some movement on Nazanin’s case. When the IMS court hearing was delayed earlier this year, Nazanin received a call a week later saying, “Come to court, because we need to speak to you.” There is no coincidence, because the two are linked. What frustrates me so much is that every time I speak to the Government, they seem to bury their head in the sand and deny that there is a link.
I thank the hon. Member for securing the debate. I wonder whether they, like me, believe that for cases such as Nazanin’s and that of my constituent Jagtar Singh Johal, having a fully resourced consular support service that enables diplomats rather than hindering them, so that families can have confidence in that consular support, is the least that the Government can provide for them and for the rest of us?
The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) makes an important point. I also wish to offer my support to the family—to Richard and Nazanin—at this very difficult time. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about the level of involvement of the Prime Minister and those at senior levels in the current Administration. Will she comment on how that compares and contrasts with the level of support from previous Prime Ministers?
I will come to the topic of the three former Foreign Secretaries and what they have said. In terms of Prime Ministers, one of the problems that I have always had with this case is that it needs intervention from the Prime Minister, but it has not felt as though the three Prime Ministers that we have dealt with have given us that option. Bear in mind that I have asked Prime Minister’s questions to all of them and turned up at No. 10 to knock on their door every single time there has been a new Prime Minister.
I will take an intervention in a minute, but I want to make a little more progress.
The Leader of the House told me in March that Iran was holding us to ransom. He said that
“the UK Government do not pay for the release of hostages”—[Official Report, 11 March 2021; Vol. 690, c. 1014.]
I see the logic of this principle but, in the truest form of the word, this is not a ransom; it is a debt. It is a debt that we as a country owe Iran. It was ruled in international tribunals that we owe Iran this money. Anyone hiding behind the fact that it is a ransom is wrong. They need to see the ruling in international courts to understand that we owe this money.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and congratulate her on securing the debate. I will also take this opportunity to say exactly how brave Richard has been throughout this ordeal, on behalf of his whole family. He is here today. As I am a co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Magnitsky sanctions, I wonder whether the hon. Lady might ask the Government this question in due course: how is it that the United States, Australia, France and Germany have all now successfully negotiated the release of their citizens who were arbitrarily detained in Iran, yet we have made no progress? Perhaps she could challenge the Government on that.
I thank the right hon. Member for his intervention. He is absolutely right, because those countries have brought their people home. Indeed, Australia actually managed to bring Nazanin’s prison cellmate back home, while Nazanin herself is still in Iran. So I hope that the Minister will pay attention to what the right hon. Member has just said, because he makes a very important point.
Regarding the debt, I will come back to something that the Secretary of State for Defence has said:
“With regard to IMS Ltd and the outstanding legal dispute the government acknowledges there is a debt to be paid and continues to explore every legal avenue for the lawful discharge of that debt.”
So if anyone questions whether we owe the money, we definitely owe the money, as has been stated several times. It is not a ransom; it is a debt that we as a country should lawfully pay back to Iran.
Nuclear negotiations restart on 29 November and there is a risk that both Nazanin’s case and Anoosheh Ashoori’s case will be used as leverage. The negotiations are complex and we cannot risk these cases becoming entangled in them. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government need to have a plan in place to ensure that these cases do not get caught up in the nuclear negotiations?
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. I think that Members from across the House can probably hear the frustration in my voice, because I am very worried that my constituent is getting caught up in this overall universal problem and becoming a pawn between the two countries. Her husband has maintained from day one that she is a pawn caught between the two countries, which is unacceptable.
I will make just a bit more progress before giving way again.
One of the things that I have been told by different Foreign Office Ministers, off and on the record, is that there are practical issues with actually paying the debt. However, if anyone has read the news this week, they will have seen that three former Foreign Secretaries have come out and said that there are ways of paying the debt without busting sanctions and without angering our western allies. For me the question is this: if we all know that the debt exists, and we have ways of paying it, what is the explanation for why we have not paid it?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Earlier the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) made the point about the UK’s seeming inability to get our people who are held captive overseas released. I know that she is aware of the case of Luke Symons, my constituent who is held by the Houthis. Similarly, other countries seem to have been able to get their people held by them released. Does she think that there is something wrong in the way the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is approaching these cases?
That is the frustration that Nazanin expresses every time I speak to her: that her Government are not doing enough for her as a British citizen. The people she was in jail with are going home, while she is still stuck there, missing out on her daughter’s childhood.
I thank the hon. Member for her generosity in giving way. People across south Belfast, and indeed across Northern Ireland, have expressed their distress at the forced separation of a mother and her young daughter. Does the hon. Member share my concern that the failure that this family are experiencing is part of a pattern of moral unseriousness and a lack of moral courage, which is in very stark contrast to the steadfastness and bravery that this family are somehow finding?
I agree with the hon. Member and thank her for her help in this campaign. I repeat the point that several other Members have already made, which is that this issue is not just about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe; it is also about Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this essential debate. I also thank her for mentioning my constituent Anoosheh Ashoori, a 67-year-old man who is a father and a husband, and a British citizen who is also locked up in the same prison as Nazanin. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a grotesque crime for Iran to hold hostages but that it is also a crime for our country not to settle any debts that are possibly keeping the hostages there?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and applaud all the work she is doing to try to free her constituent. It is sad that we have had to bond over this topic, with both of us having constituents who are imprisoned in Iran and separated from their families.
We need to pay our debt and challenge Iran, calling it out for what it is—challenging the perpetrators. But until we pay our debt, they will not even come to the negotiating table and we cannot deal with them.
In February, the Minister assured us that the UK Government were using every tool in their diplomatic arsenal and doing everything they could to get Nazanin home. Does the hon. Lady want to ask the Minister, as I do, what is missing from those diplomatic tools, because so far they have failed to bring anything about?
What I would say is that in the nearly six years that Richard Ratcliffe and I have been campaigned to get Nazanin home, we have heard every platitude. We have heard about no stones being unturned. We have heard about how this issue is top of the Government’s agenda. We know it is their highest priority, but warm words are not enough any more. After six years, I want to see my constituent come home. I do not want to hear from the Government the same rhetoric over and over again, which is what we are hearing.
I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for giving way. I want to put on the record my heartfelt feelings on behalf of all the people in Hornsey and Wood Green. I also want to point out how long it has taken to resolve the case of my constituent Aras Amiri, who was a member of the British Council—she was almost a Foreign Office employee. There is a feeling that we all think this is inevitable, but we have to get some energy and some push in order to get Nazanin home.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing a debate on this serious matter. Is not the elephant in the room the very obvious fact that the current incumbent in Downing Street said something that was a monumental cock-up, which has had a human cost? It is now up to the Government to fix that immediately, without further delay.
On behalf of the people in Glasgow East, I extend my best wishes to Richard, Nazanin and Gabriella. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) mentioned the need to get energy into the effort to get Nazanin home. It is widely accepted in the House that the current Foreign Secretary is always full of energy, so can the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) tell us what the new Foreign Secretary has done to try to progress the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe?
I am appreciative of the fact that the new Foreign Secretary called me as soon as she was in post and said that she was dealing with Nazanin. She also called us in for a meeting, along with Richard Ratcliffe and members of his family. I am grateful that she seems to be acting on the issue, but I will judge her on what she does at the end. As I say, we have dealt with five Foreign Secretaries and none of them has brought Nazanin home yet. It is time the Foreign Secretary took some action properly.
I have to go on to my questions, but I will take some very short interventions.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her campaign. Given that Nazanin has been granted diplomatic protection, how does the hon. Lady feel that the Government are treating her case differently from other consular cases? Does she think that Anoosheh Ashoori should also be granted diplomatic protection?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend on behalf of the people of Chesterfield. She is absolutely inspirational in the campaign that she is fighting, but I know it will mean something to her only when she gets Nazanin home. Will she tell us a bit more about the barbaric Iranian regime and the way it has operated? What is her message to the regime?
The people of Weaver Vale send their love and compassion to Nazanin, Richard and Gabriella, and to my hon. Friend, who is a real champion of this issue. It is now important that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister do the right thing.
I have rarely seen such a crowded Westminster Hall debate. It demonstrates the amount of affection and concern that we have for Nazanin. I think Richard will report that back to his wife, so I thank hon. Members.
I will pick up on diplomatic protection. It is right to say that diplomatic protection was given to Nazanin by the former Foreign Secretary. We in the campaign do not feel that the Government have used that enough, because it became a state-to-state dispute the moment that diplomatic protection was given. One of the questions I have for the Minister is whether he will do something to use the diplomatic protection and try to get Nazanin home.
If we were able to engineer a vote today on the payment of the debt, it would be unanimous. Is there a way that we can engineer a vote in the main Chamber on the debt, so that we add pressure on the Government to pay the debt and get Nazanin home?
Very briefly, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) and wish her and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) well. The Ratcliffe family, and Anoosheh Ashoori, Morad Tahbaz, who was born in Hammersmith Hospital, and Mehran Raoof are all British citizens. The Hague convention applies to them; they can get diplomatic protection. If the Minister would only look at the Hague convention, he would find that it takes other factors into account. More importantly, why do we not harness the spirit of Lewis Hamilton at the Brazilian grand prix, and realise that there is not a single obstacle that is going to stop us bringing home our Nazanin, Anoosheh, Morad and Mehran?
May I put it on the record that the people of Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey are fully behind Nazanin being freed? Would the hon. Lady agree that the UK Government must now act without any fear of upsetting allies such as the United States, and do what must be done to free Nazanin now?
I absolutely agree. I will ask the Minister a series of questions, and then I know that there are lots of hon. Members who want to speak.
Why will the Government not acknowledge that Nazanin is a hostage, and challenge Iran’s hostage-taking with sanctions or legal action? Will the Minister set out exactly what practical and legal issues he believes stand in the way of resolving the International Military Services debt, so that these can be properly scrutinised? The Government have long accepted that they owe the debt as a matter of international law. Do the Government think that they are entitled to ignore their legal obligations and the rule of law? Have the Government made a specific offer to Iran to discharge the debt through humanitarian assistance, such as the provision of medicine? Have the Government sought or received assurance from the US, in the form of a comfort letter, that no bank will be sanctioned or fined for facilitating the payment of the debt? Finally, a Foreign Office Minister, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, said in the Lords yesterday that,
“were the Government to pay hundreds of millions of pounds to the Iranian Government, that would undoubtedly be seen as payment for a hostage situation.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 November 2021; Vol. 816, c. 18.]
Is that the view of the Government?
I will focus on the money that we owe Iran for the tanks that we never delivered even though the Shah’s regime had paid for them before the Iranian revolution of 1979. The United States was in a similar position to us, and apparently owed $1.7 billion to the Iranian regime. However, it was reported that the Obama Administration returned that money, via Switzerland and in other than US currency, on 17 January 2016, 22 January 2016 and 5 February 2016. On 17 January, by chance, four US prisoners were released from Iranian jails. The Obama Administration, of course, denied that there was any connection.
On 30 June 2016, I asked the Secretary of State for Defence how much the MOD owed Iran for Chieftain tanks that were never delivered. The answer that I received was that the MOD did not dispute that the money was owed, but that EU sanctions stopped repayment. There is no doubt that we owe Iran £400 million, and it should be given back. With luck, if we repay the money, the supreme leader, who is the only person who will make the decision, may be magnanimous enough to order the release of not just Nazanin but all the other British prisoners held in jail in Iran. As we have always owed that money, I can live with the idea that we have not been blackmailed into returning £400 million for military equipment that we never delivered.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on securing the debate and on her hard work on this serious issue. I pay tribute to her constituent, who is sitting behind me. Along with many other MPs, I was privileged to visit him during his hunger strike.
The facts are stark. A British citizen has been detained for five and a half years on unsubstantiated allegations of spying. Successive Conservative Foreign Secretaries have failed to secure her freedom. No less than three distinguished former Foreign Secretaries have said that the debt to Iran should be paid so that Nazanin can come home.
I will keep my comments brief. There have been some good articles about the case in the newspapers over the weekend, particularly The Times and The Observer. I am grateful to them for informing the questions that I will ask of the Minister.
First, why is the Prime Minister still refusing to settle the acknowledged £400 million debt to Iran incurred before the ’79 revolution? Why has he let that unjustified failure to pay up bedevil the talks? Why are the Government saying that bank transfer restrictions arising from international sanctions prevent payment? Is that not untrue? Surely the Government can find legal ways around rules that they helped to create. As we have already heard, the United States settled a similar debt in return for the release of four American hostages.
The hon. and learned Lady is presenting a forensic case in her usual style. Does she agree with the International Observatory of Human Rights that one way around that issue might be to use humanitarian aid?
Yes, indeed. I will come to that.
Secondly, why has the Prime Minister failed to honour the personal promise to pay the debt that he made as Foreign Secretary to Mr Ratcliffe and, indirectly, to the Iranians? That promise was a blatant attempt to compensate for the disastrous blunder that we have heard about when he misrepresented Nazanin’s activities in Tehran. Why will the Prime Minister not keep his word and his promises, particularly when the life of a young mother is at stake?
Thirdly, why are the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary persisting with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s non-confrontational softly-softly approach? Let us be honest: the Government are not exactly known for their non-confrontational softly-softly approach when it comes to the European Union or the vexed question of the north of Ireland. In this respect, their approach has failed completely. It is not about paying a ransom; it is about the credibility of the British Government abroad and the confidence of British citizens in their Government. When will the Prime Minister take a tougher line with Iran than with the European Union?
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for securing this important debate and for her unyielding determination to keep the issue in the public’s consciousness and alive in Parliament. Nazanin and her family have been subjected to the utmost cruelty—a never-ending emotional torture. Just when they think that freedom is within their grasp, it is ripped away again. Where does somebody go from here and what do they do?
Richard asked himself that question. He has raised the issue with a series of Secretaries of State and Prime Ministers. He has involved the media in the UK and what independent voices there are in Tehran. When I spoke to him when I visited him a few times in the last couple of weeks, he said that the only thing he felt he could now do was starve himself. I ask how hopeless, powerless and desperate someone must be to feel that the only thing they can do is go on hunger strike—endure 21 days of not eating, while at the same time being prepared to see people, greet people and do interviews, explaining again and again what their situation is, in the hope that something will budge.
Throughout, Richard has remained utterly gracious. He has asked himself, “How do I break this stalemate? What do I do to make sure that my wife, and other British citizens in the same situation, are not forgotten? How do I make sure that their lives do not disappear in a pile of paperwork pushed to the back of a desk?” Nazanin has endured the most profound mental and physical trauma throughout her imprisonment, tortuous heartbreak caused by prolonged separation from her loved ones. She has been subjected to prolonged periods of solitary confinement, vastly inadequate living conditions, and traumatising interrogation. Her treatment has been utterly appalling.
How do we end this nightmare? So far, diplomatic routes have not worked. The sticking point is a £400 million historical debt relating to a sale of Chieftain tanks, paid for but never received, dating back to the 1970s. To date, there have been conversations, discussions, deliberations, articles and newspaper coverage, but words alone are no longer enough: it is time for action. Can the Minister today let us know what that action will be, so that Nazanin can come home where she rightly belongs, with her family?
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Charles. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on securing today’s debate, and on the relentless tenacity she has shown in highlighting the injustice of Nazanin’s incarceration at every opportunity. I of course wish to pay tribute to Richard Ratcliffe as well: I have had the privilege of meeting him on a number of occasions, and each time he has been a picture of calm, dignity and resolve. Goodness knows what he must be feeling inside, yet despite that unimaginable torment, he has always conducted himself in a way that is a credit to himself and to Nazanin. To have gone on hunger strike for three weeks, having done so previously and suffered the agonies of it already, and knowing the damage it can do to a person, shows the level of desperation he must feel at a seemingly intractable situation in which hope can be cruelly snatched away. That must be the hardest thing of all to take.
Many of my constituents have been in touch to register their support for the release of Nazanin. Understandably, they have been moved by the plight of a mother separated from her husband and child, but they have also been motivated to contact me because of what they see as a failure of the UK Government to take decisive action. We all know that diplomacy is a fine art and that nuance is required, but there is no room for doubt here: this is an injustice and an intolerable situation, and every opportunity should be taken to right this wrong. Many of my constituents believe, as I do and as we have heard today, that more can be done. We have heard some examples of what that might look like.
The entire history of this situation does not need repeating, but it is worth repeating that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been imprisoned for crimes that she did not commit. I use the word “crimes” with a heavy caveat: we should resist talking about this situation in terms of crimes committed, because this is not a criminal justice matter but a political one. She is a victim of the long-standing dispute between Iran and this country over the £400 million it says is owed by the UK Government. It seems to me that until we have a public acknowledgment that that dispute lies at the root of this situation, we shall struggle to move forward, so will we get such an acknowledgment today from the Minister? Will that then lead to an approach based on Nazanin effectively being a hostage, for whom a ransom is sought?
We can be in no doubt that the Government’s approach thus far has been ineffective, and in some instances counterproductive. I noted with interest that the Government will not disclose how many dual nationals currently find themselves in the same position. One can probably conclude from that fact that there are others, which prompts the question: where does this end? How many more innocent people could find themselves pawns in a game that they have no control over, and which their own Government seem unwilling to take steps to resolve? I also ask the Minister what efforts are being made to gather international support, and what other diplomatic and financial levers can be pulled to bring about a satisfactory resolution, because we cannot accept that no more can be done. We cannot accept that this is just the way it is, or that such a gross injustice can be tolerated, and the support that we are seeing from Members today shows that this Parliament does not accept that nothing more can be done.
I salute the quiet dignity of Richard Ratcliffe, who is one of the bravest people I have ever met. I thank the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for her campaigning. We are from different parties, but she makes me proud to be a Member of this House.
How do we get Nazanin, Anoosheh, Morad and Mehran home? If it were ransom money, heartbreaking though it is, we should not pay it, because it would only lead to more hostages being taken. But it is not ransom money; it is a historical debt that we owe Iran. The debt should not be linked to this case, but it is, and that is why we should pay it. It is not easy to do because of sanctions, but with political will it can be done. No country can have a veto over a sovereign Britain deciding to pay its debt, not least the United States, because it did exactly the same thing under President Obama.
I believe that during the period when I was Foreign Secretary, the decision whether we owed that money was settled. There was an understanding, confirmed publicly by the Defence Secretary, that the money is owed and should be paid. It was going to take, and will take, a real effort to deal with the practicalities. But the Americans managed it and we can most certainly manage it, if necessary by getting an RAF plane to fly gold over to Tehran. There are lots of ways of doing it.
I will make some progress. One other thing needs to happen to ensure that Nazanin and the other dual nationals can come home: we must completely de-link their fates from the outcome of the Vienna talks on the joint comprehensive plan of action. Just as we tell Iran it should not make anyone a pawn in a diplomatic game, we too must live by those words and ensure they are not being used in any way by any country to put pressure on Iran to sign up to that deal. Their fates should be completely separate.
This is a terrible tragedy. It is a shame not just on Iran but on Britain that it has taken us five and a half years to solve it. There must be two outcomes: first, the reuniting of all the families who have been separated by this vile detention in Iran, including Nazanin’s family; and secondly, the legacy of this tragedy must be the end of the vile practice of hostage diplomacy, which must be consigned back to the 19th century where it belongs. Britain needs to learn from this to lead a diplomatic initiative with other countries, so that if someone is taken hostage from one country, we treat it as if they had been taken hostage from any of us. We act accordingly; we deter it and it never happens again.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on securing this important debate and on her hard work so far.
Unjustly convicted, denied basic human rights and tortured—Richard Ratcliffe is rightly desperate as his wife has to undergo this cruel ordeal. It is heartbreaking that, once again, Richard has had to resort to the life-threatening action of a hunger strike. I visited Richard on day 16 of his strike. The pain in his eyes was harrowing. He just wants the Government to act. To go 21 days without food is testament to Richard’s love for his wife and his resolution to get the attention this issue rightly needs. The risks and symptoms of going on the strike are huge. After two weeks, people on hunger strike will have difficulty standing. They suffer severe dizziness, sluggishness and loss of co-ordination. After two or three weeks, it can result in severe neurological problems—vision loss and lack of motor skills. That is the love that Richard has shown for his wife.
Nazanin’s reaction to her husband’s strike brought me to tears at the weekend. She was worried sick about her husband. My heart breaks that this family is caught up in this dispute between two states. I want to address Nazanin directly, if she is able to see this debate. Nazanin, you can see the love and support right across this Parliament. I want to assure you that we, as representatives up and down this country, will not stop until you are free, home and reunited with your family and daughter. I pay tribute to the whole family, who are always there to support Richard, Gabriella and Nazanin. Richard’s sister Rachel lives in Cardiff and is always there for them, always looking for the positive and determined to bring a positive outcome.
Let us be clear: the blame lies firmly at the Prime Minister’s door. He could resolve this issue by paying the debt to Iran, yet he refuses to do so. On Monday, Zac Goldsmith told peers that paying the debt owed by the UK would be seen as payment for a hostage, and would not be in the Government’s interest. Well, Zac, tell that to this family.
Paying a debt is not paying a ransom. It has been ordered by an international court. It is clear this case could have been resolved many months ago. As well as Nazanin, we must not forget Anoosheh, Morad and Mehran—we must bring them home too. I hope this debate is a turning point, and that the Government will do everything in their power to bring them home.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I join the tributes to Richard Ratcliffe—it is great to see that he is able to join us—and to his entire family, some of whom live in my constituency, whose resilience and bravery have been truly remarkable during this long period. I also join the tributes to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), whose campaigning has been exemplary; many of us have been delighted to assist her in that.
I will make two points in the time available to me about the linkage of debt repayment to the detention of UK nationals and about the sanctions regime. First, I understand entirely and agree with the Government’s rejection of any suggestion by Iran that there is a connection between the repayment of a decades-old commercial debt and the release of UK citizens. However, I urge the Minister and his colleagues not to be hamstrung by what I might call the mirror image problem. Failing to repay a debt that would otherwise be repayable for fear of it being linked to the release of UK detainees is, in itself, to make a linkage that the Government have been at pains to say does not exist. If the debt should be repaid—and it seems clear that it should, subject to the remaining legal proceedings—then it should be repaid.
The UK’s adherence to standards of behaviour that states should maintain—standards which we argue Iran is not maintaining—demands that the debt be repaid promptly. How such a repayment is perceived should not, as a matter of principle, prevent us from making it.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the failure to pay an acknowledged debt creates a fig leaf for the Iranian Government to hide behind? It is not a matter of it being connected; it is an obstruction to things moving forward.
I understand entirely the point made by the hon. Lady. However, as I say, I do not think it is necessary to accept any linkage—positive or negative, by the Iranians or by the UK—to justify the decision to repay a debt that is legally repayable. We should do that for its own reasons and for its own sake, regardless of what else may be happening.
That brings me to the issue of the sanctions regime as an obstacle to repayment. It seems that we require more ingenuity and more innovation. Certainly, in so far as my right hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues are concerned, I accept that a huge amount of personal effort has been put into this case. However, as others have said, something is still missing, and that may be the innovation that we need to find.
The debt predates the sanctions regime that we see as an obstacle to making the repayment. The purpose of that sanctions regime is to prevent the enrichment of Iran during the course of the sanctions period, but it does not seem to me that this repayment would do that. The repayment of the debt would, in effect, put Iran in the position it would have been in if the obligation had been fulfilled when it should have been—well prior to the beginning of the sanctions regime.
I know better than many that the Minister has access to some exceptionally good lawyers in government. I hope that he is instructing those lawyers to use their best imagination and innovation to find ways of resolving this legal problem, because that is what we will require to break this deadlock. I know he will do his best, but I hope that he will give instructions to apply innovation and ingenuity to the case, as well as simply effort.
May I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on the way she has taken up this cause? I also pay tribute to Richard Ratcliffe and his whole family. The case has touched the hearts of the entire nation; 200 of my constituents have written in. I first heard of it when Richard’s aunt Rosemary and Colin came to see me in my advice surgery. As their MP at that moment, I said I would do everything I could to help. Now, as Liberal Democrat spokesperson, I intend to do the same.
It has been 2,000 days since the first detention. Since then, there have been eight urgent questions and 125 written questions from Members across the House. This is the third debate we have had on this, and yet Nazanin is still not home. To add another number, this is the fifth Foreign Secretary during that time, one of whom became Prime Minister. While he was Foreign Secretary he caused his own problems in this case. No offence to the Minister, but I find it regrettable that we have yet to see the current Foreign Secretary making statements to the House, because people watch what happens in Parliament. If they indicate that it is a priority, then I believe that that is what needs to happen.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for bringing the debate. Amid this talk of international diplomacy, sanctions and payments, when my constituents write to me about this case, they want to express their huge sympathy for Richard and particularly his daughter. Gabriella was just 22 months old when her mother was imprisoned. When I had the pleasure of speaking to Richard recently, he told me that now she is in the UK she is doing really well at her school, but my heart goes out to them. I want to express, on behalf of my constituents, how for them this is really about reuniting a mother with her daughter.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) says, the reason this has touched the hearts of so many people is that they can imagine being in this position.
The Government need to acknowledge that they are state hostages—they have been taken hostage by the Iranian state—and the problem is that there is no way to tackle this internationally. Will the Minister update us on any progress on the Foreign Affairs Committee recommendation to work with the United Nations to create an internationally recognised definition for state hostage-taking, so that this does not happen to other families in future?
It is clear that the Government have got themselves into a bit of a twist over what they think of the debt. Either it is linked or it is not. In my view, it is not linked. We owe the debt; we should pay the debt. It is now increasingly clear that there are ways in which that could happen. I would say, call their bluff. If the Iranian Government say that there is a debt, remove the barrier. If they still do not release the hostages, we show the Iranian Government for the wicked regime that it is. I do not see a downside to doing that.
In closing, I simply want to express my wholehearted support for anything the Government can do, so that this is the last debate on this matter. A standing-room-only debate in Westminster Hall shows that this Parliament cares. I know the Minister cares. I would like to think that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister care, but I do know that the whole country cares. We just want Nazanin home.
I have received more than 100 emails from constituents on this matter, which shows that the case of Nazanin has touched the hearts of the nation. It is all too common for people to claim that the situation is Kafkaesque. To me, as an avid reader of Kafka, the similarity between current cases and that of Josef K in “The Trial” are all too apparent. Kafka himself described the seeming basis of the Iranian judicial system when he wrote in “The Trial” that
“it’s characteristic of this judicial system that a man is condemned not only when he’s innocent but also in ignorance.”
Nazanin was charged and convicted without adequate representation or due process—indeed, condemned in ignorance. Like other hon. Members—particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq)—I call on the Foreign Secretary, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Minister to press the Iranian Government on a number of issues that my constituents, Amnesty International and I have raised. They should press them to allow Nazanin any specialist medical care she may require; apply without discrimination article 58 of the Islamic penal code, which allows for someone to be conditionally released after serving a third of their prison sentence and would ensure the immediate release of Nazanin; ensure that Nazanin has regular access to a lawyer of her choice; allow Nazanin to be in contact with her family, including relatives abroad; and allow her to communicate with British consular officials—although that seems to be a contentious issue. I ask the Minister to respond to those points.
The United Kingdom has a well-deserved international reputation for its justice system. I hope that the Government will press for the most basic justice in Iran for our citizens, whether they are British citizens or dual citizens, and particularly for Nazanin. It is clear from the contributions to this debate that that is completely and utterly lacking.
Sir Charles, that was the speech I made in this place on 18 July 2017—word for word. In fact, it was my first speech in this place. I ask the Minister: what has changed? The answer is very little. What has the FCDO managed to do in the last four and a half years? It has failed to secure Nazanin’s release. Four and a half years of failure—a litany of failure at the Department’s door. I call on the Minister to answer the points raised in this debate and ensure that our debt to the Iranian Government is repaid—a debt that was incurred not by the last Government or the Government before them, but by the Government who were in power when I was in nursery school. It is all the more important that we ensure that the UK honours its international obligations. We have failed to do so, and Nazanin is paying the price.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on securing this debate. I know that she has been a great source of support for the Ratcliffe family with her campaigning.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is being held as a political hostage in Iran. Her life is being used as a bargaining chip in a diplomatic game between Britain and Iran. In September, in order to mark Nazanin’s 2,000th day in detention, Richard Ratcliffe and their daughter Gabriella stood on a large snakes and ladders board in Parliament Square that represented the ups and down, twists and turns and false dawns that this family have endured. Gabriella has been separated from her mother for most of her young life; Richard has been separated from his wife. Nazanin has endured terrible mistreatment, and Amnesty International rightly describes her as a victim of torture.
As so many colleagues have done, I want to pay tribute to Richard Ratcliffe and his unwavering determination to keep Nazanin’s case at the top of the agenda. I have met him during both his first and second hunger strikes to show him solidarity and support. The strength, determination and dignity that he continues to show is heroic. The Government’s response to the escalation of Nazanin’s ordeal in Iran has rightly been described as pitiful. In May this year, the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), said that Iran’s treatment of Nazanin “amounts to torture” and that she is being
“held unlawfully…as a matter of international law.”
The strengthening of the language being used by Ministers is welcome, but it is just words—the Government have to act. We need to know why the Government are not acting to bring British hostages home.
In her eighth urgent question on Nazanin’s case recently, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn asked the Minister to acknowledge that Nazanin is a hostage, to resolve the £400 million debt issue—I am pleased that so many Members have raised that today—and to work to secure an end to hostage taking. The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), rightly called for a fundamental rethink of the Government’s approach to Nazanin. It is long past time for an urgent intervention from the Prime Minister, and for a new strategy to bring Nazanin home. The strength of support in this standing-room only Westminster Hall debate shows how much support there is in this House for that urgent action.
I thank the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for securing this debate. Almost exactly a year ago, on 3 November 2020, the Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and said that the Government,
“from the Prime Minister down, remain committed to doing everything we can for her.”—[Official Report, 3 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 185.]
In the intervening 12 months, nothing has changed. Nazanin is no closer to being released, her daughter is no nearer to being reunited with her mother, and her husband, Richard, has been forced into enduring yet another hunger strike to highlight her case. Since her detention in April 2016, five Foreign Secretaries have promised to explore every avenue, leave no stone unturned and work tirelessly to secure her release. However, there has been no progress.
Last year, when the Defence Secretary finally acknowledged that there is a debt and a debt has to be repaid, it suddenly felt like progress; it felt like perhaps there was a breakthrough. The Minister himself admitted that they were exploring ways to repay this debt.
A year ago it felt like negotiations were at a delicate stage, when one misspoken word could set the whole process back. Yet here we are, stuck in the same situation as we were then. The inescapable conclusion must therefore be that this Government are actually not serious about securing the release of Nazanin. They have had so many chances, so many opportunities, and every single one of them has been missed.
I visited Richard twice during his hunger strikes, and on both occasions I was struck by his resolve to not sit meekly back and wait for debates to take their course. The Government are letting the people down; they are letting Nazanin down, and there is a seven-year-old girl stuck in the middle. Minister, it is not good enough. The public are not with you. Richard Ratcliffe is not going to go away, and neither are his supporters in this House.
Like others, I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), not just for securing this debate but for her tireless and unwavering commitment to her constituents.
I have had the pleasure of meeting Richard on a number of occasions: first, outside the Iranian embassy while on hunger strike, and most recently outside the Foreign Office, also while on hunger strike. I cannot begin to imagine the living hell he has endured over the past five years, yet he has only ever acted with the utmost dignity and decency. His dedication to his wife and devotion to his family are a true inspiration. The pain, the cruelty, and the unfairness to which Nazanin and many others have been subjected is, sadly, all too routine for the Iranian regime. Their fates should not be tied to geopolitics and arms deals, but they are.
We are all well versed in the complexities of these cases, the issues around breach of sanctions, arguments about interest, the relationship with the US. However, one thing is clear: we do owe that debt. Former Foreign Secretaries have said that we should pay that debt. The Defence Secretary has said that we should pay that debt. An international court has said that we should pay that debt. The Prime Minister said that we would pay that debt. There is a plan to free Nazanin, but the Government, for whatever reason, have so far chosen not to pursue it. That has come at an immeasurable cost to Nazanin, Richard, Gabriella and the many other families affected.
I want to take this opportunity to urge the Minister—and I know that he cares about these matters—to do whatever it takes to prevent those who have been ripped apart from being kept apart for much longer. No one should be forced to starve themselves just to get their family back, and the last thing any of us want is to see Richard on hunger strike again. The torment must not continue, and we look to the Government to ensure that it does not.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I would also like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for securing this really important debate.
Like many in this House, I visited Richard a couple of weeks ago outside the Foreign Office, to see him and the measures he has taken. It is something he should never have had to do. For five and a half years, Nazanin and her young family have felt the horrific pain of separation as a result of an unjust and arbitrary detention. In May last year, the previous Foreign Secretary outlined that the treatment of Nazanin “amounts to torture”. I agree with this assessment.
Not only is Nazanin’s treatment unimaginably cruel, but our position internationally is weakened if we do not appear to have a diplomatic solution to look after our own citizens. Unfortunately, the Government have not explored the full suite of diplomatic levers to get her home, so I urge them to act today and bring this case to the fore.
Last Christmas many of us spent a number of days away from our families and loved ones. We felt the pain of not being able to see them. This evening, after today’s debates, after we have all voted and had dinner, we will all go home to our families. We will tuck our children in. We will see our grandchildren. Nazanin will not have that; Richard will not have that; Gabriella will not have that. They have been going through this hell for years, and it is time for it to end. I hope that today the Minster will outline what key actions he will be leading to change the situation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for her tremendously eloquent, passionate, and absolutely relentless pursuit of this cause. She has been an absolute credit to her constituents. I too am grateful for the opportunity to express my solidarity and support for Nazanin and her family, and I do so on behalf of my constituents in Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East. Many of them have been in touch to express their shock at the continuing torture that Nazanin endures as a hostage in Iran.
Like pretty much everyone else in the Chamber, I have had the privilege—and it was a privilege—of meeting Richard a couple of times at the Iranian embassy and then at the Foreign Office. It is appalling that he has felt compelled to go on hunger strike twice just to seek justice for his family. I hope it gives him some heart to see the huge cross-party support on display today.
First and foremost, our starting point is condemnation of the Iranian regime. How it has acted and continues to act is absolutely appalling, but today we have the opportunity to ask, and we must ask, questions of the UK Government. My constituents want to know what the strategy is. We almost need to ask whether there is a strategy. I appreciate that there are no easy answers to such situations, but we are entitled to see evidence of a concerted strategy and one that is being pursued energetically. Sadly, we are not convinced that that is the case.
It has been rightly asked why other countries have managed to secure releases, but the UK has not. It is beyond doubt that it is linked to the IMS debt that is legally due. Why is that not being paid? Why are the Government unable even to speak about it when previously they appeared very willing to make promises and raise expectations?
While it is welcome that diplomat protection was granted to Nazanin, how has it been used by the Government? What practical difference has it made? If it is useful, will others be granted the same status? These are just some of the questions that my constituents and I would love to see answered, and we will continue to push for answers along with colleagues across the House.
I am grateful to be called to speak in the debate, and I hope Richard can feel the support, warmth and love for him in the room today. I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for her tenacity and commitment to the Zaghari-Ratcliffe family, as well as her compassion. She has done so much to help and champion Nazanin’s case. In my constituency of Newport West, this case is personal. Richard Ratcliffe’s sister Rebecca is a constituent of mine, so I was determined to speak today. I thank Rebecca for being in touch ahead of the debate, and I thank all the people from across Newport West who have written to me about Nazanin in recent days.
There is no doubt that the failure to get Nazanin home with her family and friends lies at the door of No. 10 Downing Street and on the desk of this Prime Minister. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell the House exactly what the Prime Minister has done since July 2019 to get Nazanin home. Can he tell us precisely how many meetings the Prime Minister has had on the issue? Can he outline what efforts are being made to ensure Nazanin is home in time for Christmas? Nazanin’s lovely husband Richard has previously said that this Government’s inability to secure his wife’s return home is “a failure of diplomacy”. What does the Minister say to that?
I am here in the debate as a mother and a wife, but most importantly as a parliamentarian. I feel a massive obligation to Richard, Gabriella, Rebecca and all the family to press the Minister in the strongest terms. So far this Government have failed to get Nazanin home, so I urge the Minister to get back to the Foreign Office and make it very clear to the Foreign Secretary that this simply cannot go on. We need Nazanin home in the UK, and we need her home now.
I can be brief because there is so much agreement across the House on this point, but I put on the record the SNP’s deep appreciation for the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for bringing the debate forward and her dogged pursuit of the issue. The SNP has a deep respect for the profound dignity of Richard Ratcliffe, who is obviously undergoing a living hell in this situation and deserves the cross-party support that is evident today.
I also put on record that I do not think the Minister is part of the problem. I think he has been diligent and is carrying the can for a story of other people’s failures, because this is a story of failure. The fact that Nazanin and others have not been released when they are clearly political hostages is something that should give us all deep cause for concern. It is up to all of us to find solutions to the problem.
I have two concrete points that I will make and be grateful for a response on. There is clearly agreement across the House that the historical £400 million debt does need to be repaid. What consideration have the Government given to translating that debt into humanitarian aid or some sort of other payment that would be a face-saving mechanism and also a more legally sound way of making that payment? Surely that would move things on.
Parallel to that—because I do not think it should just be carrot; I think we need some stick as well—what consideration have the Government given to Magnitsky sanctions on individuals within the Iranian regime to focus minds that this is an intolerable situation that cannot stand? The Minister will get great support across the House if he takes these measures forward—certainly from the SNP. We want to see Nazanin and the other people home as soon as possible.
I will be brief because I very much want to hear what the Minister has to say in response. The whole House owes a debt to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for the way she has pursued this case for so long—I remember having a conversation with her when Nazanin was first taken prisoner. We should all also admire Richard for the way he has campaigned so effectively despite his suffering. As a result of that, this is the largest Westminster Hall turnout I can remember.
Obviously, the debt is owed and must be paid. If this country wants respect for behaving in the proper manner, the debt should be paid. It is not a negotiation; it is saying “This money is owed. Let’s pay it.” I believe that would help to unlock a lot of things, and help to open up a serious human rights dialogue with Iran in the future, which is necessary. While we are here today, concentrating on Nazanin’s release—which I completely support—I would put on record that we should also be calling for the release of Anoosheh Ashoori, Mehran Raoof and Morad Tahbaz, who are in a similar situation. I hope that, in the context of a changed and renewed relationship with Iran, they would be released.
I want to see decent human rights everywhere around the world, and that obviously includes Iran. The people of Iran deserve that. We should do everything we can to ensure that happens. I hope the Minister can unlock this—maybe not completely today but I hope it can be unlocked—and that he will have got the message of the strength of feeling, from everybody across our House, for her release.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles; congratulations on chairing the debate so effectively. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on giving so many people the opportunity to share her passion and frustration over the situation that Nazanin, Richard and Gabriella are all in. We all express our personal solidarity with them today, along with that of the thousands—probably tens or hundreds of thousands—of constituents represented by the voices here.
I hope you will indulge me, Sir Charles, if I recognise the SNP and Plaid Members who are either here or have been to visit Richard, but have not been able to speak. Those are my hon. Friends the Members for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan), for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn), for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), for Gordon (Richard Thomson), for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson), for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), and for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock). I also pay tribute to the hon. Members for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey), for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), and for North Down (Stephen Farry). We all believe that enough is enough; it is time for action.
I first met Richard outside the Iranian embassy in 2019, and had the privilege of meeting him again outside the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. He said it was one thing to keep vigil outside the embassy of the country that is holding his wife hostage—let us make no mistake; that is what Nazanin is, and that is the first thing the Minister ought to put on record today—but it is another to have to protest, and to go on hunger strike, outside his own Government’s buildings because of their inaction and unwillingness or inability to carry out their basic duty of care for one of their own citizens.
The Government repeatedly say they are doing everything they can but, as we have heard in this debate, that is patently not the case, as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) and many others have said. It is clear that the repayment of debt is a major issue, and one that, if resolved, would bring about a major shift in Iranian policy. The right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) has said as much, and others have said how that could be done.
Sadly, the feedback that we have had—the result of the hunger strike—was a series of increasingly frustrating meetings that made the family and all campaigners feel that no progress is being made. That is despite, as the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) says, other countries in recent years, including the United States, Australia, France and Germany, all successfully negotiating the release of their citizens who have been arbitrarily detained in Iran—but Britain has not secured any releases.
We have also heard the cases of Anoosheh Ashoori, Mehran Raoof and Morad Tahbaz, all of whom, interestingly—my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) said this to me in conversation—are dual nationals. I wonder if that makes the UK Government feel they have some sort of diminished responsibility for them, but a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), Jagtar Singh Johal, remains incarcerated in India, so there has to be more; more can be done and must be done.
Saying that diplomatic protection exists is one thing, but acting on it is another. I pay tribute to the point made by the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), and to the fact that, week after week, she raised this at business questions. She did that on behalf of all of us in the House who take an interest in that case, and I do not think the Government would be as responsive if not for her continuing to do that. That should be recognised.
Having the right to diplomatic protection means there should be a right to private consular meetings and immediate access to medical examination by an independent doctor. The Government could issue a formal protest to the Iranian authorities; they could summon the Iranian Ambassador—they summoned the French Ambassador after all. They could propose to the Iranian authorities the immediate commencement of formal negotiations to resolve the dispute; they could send a detailed legal memorandum to the Iranian authorities outlining the breaches of international law arising from their detention of these British nationals; and they should assert under international law their right to provide assistance. Consular assistance is important to all of us, including my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell). I hope there will be a further debate on that in the Chamber very soon.
Throughout the Brexit campaign and, indeed, the independence referendum campaign, we were always told how proud we should be of our British passports. Well, the British passport says:
“Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary”.
That is what it says on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s passport. The question for the Government today is: what are they doing to make it a reality?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. Like other Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on securing this debate and on all her incredible work on behalf of her constituents. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been held in Iran for five and a half years. Like many here, I visited Richard, her husband, on two occasions outside the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and I want to pay tribute to him for his determination and incredible resolve.
Many MPs and members of the public visited Richard during his hunger strike. In his final speech outside the FCDO, looking back at his time on hunger strike, he said that it had always been important to him that everyone who visited him had been united against injustice. We all pay tribute to Richard and, as others have said, the fight will go on.
Last week, there were talks between the Government and the Iranian deputy Foreign Minister. Unfortunately, yet again, there was no progress. Nor has there been progress on the cases of other dual nationals, including Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz. Both men are not in good health and, like Nazanin, are being arbitrarily detained on spurious fabricated charges. Anoosheh Ashoori has not been granted diplomatic protection by the UK Government and has not been allowed out of prison. Morad Tahbaz was one of eight conservationists held by the Iranian authorities. Amnesty International has said that there was evidence that those eight had been tortured to obtain false confessions.
Everyone here is united in believing that those detentions are wrong and totally unjust. Surely, all this has gone on long enough. For more than five years, British Governments have tried and failed to secure the release of Nazanin and the other dual nationals. If there has been a Government strategy during this time, it has clearly failed.
A number of Members have mentioned the debt of £400 million which Britain owes Iran. The money was paid to the United Kingdom by Iran over 40 years ago for 1,500 Chieftain tanks which were never delivered. The Government have said that bank transfer transactions are not possible because of restrictions but, as we all know, if the Government had the will to settle the debt, one way or another the payment would be made.
I am not suggesting that any sort of ransom is paid by our Government, but if the money is owed and there is no question but that that is the case, the debt should be settled. In fact, when the Prime Minister was Foreign Secretary, he made a promise to Richard Ratcliffe that the debt would be paid. Significantly, in 2014, the current Defence Secretary described the unpaid debt as “a sorry story”. He said the whole issue had been,
“marred by double dealing and obfuscation”.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 11 March 2014; Vol. 577, c. 103WH.]
More recently, a number of distinguished former Foreign Secretaries, Conservative and Labour, have said that the debt should be paid. That is also the view of many international and legal commentators, and it is our view as well. As the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), who is a former Foreign Secretary, has said, this is not about paying a ransom. It is about the UK’s credibility and doing what is right.
On numerous occasions, we have been told by the Government that they are doing their best and that it would be unwise to rock the boat, but it has to be said that the Government’s approach has failed abysmally. Now is surely the time to take off the kid gloves and to be vigorous and determined. Nazanin, Anoosheh Ashoori, Morad Tahbaz and all the dual nationals need to be brought back home. The time for discreet pressure and cautious words is long past. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what plan of action the Government now have for bringing our people home.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for securing the debate and for her tireless work in supporting Nazanin and Richard and in championing this issue. Although there have been times when we have disagreed, it is absolutely right that I put on the record our respect for the hon. Lady’s passion.
The hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) mentioned her support for the family of her constituent, and right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about the work that they have done to support family members of those in Iran. Other Members were unable to attend the debate because of ministerial duties—I think particularly of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), who speaks to me regularly about the situation and who is the constituency MP for some of the members of Richard and Nazanin’s family.
Like all Members of the House and everyone in the country, I have huge sympathy for the families of those who are incarcerated in Iran. The Government will continue to do everything we can to resolve the situation in which they find themselves through no fault of their own. The ongoing suffering that Iran is inflicting on British dual nationals such as Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz is deeply distressing and rightly elicits very strong feelings from hon. Members of different parties. I cannot overstate the fact that the Government share that frustration and are unwavering in our commitment to resolve this issue. We have made it clear to the Iranian Government at every stage that we expect Iran to release all British dual nationals and allow them to return home to their families.
In today’s debate, we are focusing primarily on Nazanin, Richard and Gabriella. The UK Government continue to work tirelessly to secure Nazanin’s full, permanent release and ability to return home to her family. As right hon. and hon. Members are aware, Nazanin was released on furlough into the care of her parents in Tehran in 2020, but the Iranian system has refused to let her return home and has not left her alone during the period of furlough. The Government have kept up our campaign of pressure on the Iranian authorities throughout this time, and we will not relent until she is fully and permanently released.
The completion of Nazanin’s first sentence and the removal of her ankle tag in March 2021 should have been a time for happiness and enabled Nazanin to be reunited with Richard and Gabriella. Instead, Iran doubled down on its baseless charges against her. We have raised our objections at every stage, and when those charges were formalised at a court hearing in April, we summoned the Iranians and demanded that she be released. When her appeal was rejected in October and her sentence confirmed, we again objected in the strongest terms and demanded her release. The Foreign Secretary and this Government continue to be clear in our discussions with Iran that under no circumstances should Nazanin be returned to prison, that we would react strongly if she were and that she should instead be allowed to return home to her family immediately. The Foreign Secretary raised this point again with Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian, most recently on 8 November. I raised this issue again with the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Bagheri Kani on 11 November.
At every stage since Nazanin was detained, the UK Government have carefully considered and assiduously pursued the courses of action that we have assessed offer the best opportunity for resolving this case. We have not pursued any course of action that we believe would be counterproductive to the release and return home of those in incarceration.
In March 2019, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) afforded diplomatic protection to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe. This formally raised it to a state-to-state issue. At that time, he also recognised that that was unlikely to yield immediate results, in part because Iran does not recognise dual national status. Unfortunately, his prediction at the time seems to have been proven right.
Since then, this Government have continued to take further action where we judge it will help to secure full and permanent release. We constantly review what other steps are possible, and we weigh up all the diplomatic and legal tools available to secure her release.
I will not. A number of hon. Members have raised the issue of the IMS debt. As I have said to the House on a number of occasions, the UK Government recognise that we have a duty to legally repay this debt and we continue to explore all legal options to resolve this 40-year-old case. [Interruption.] We have always been clear.
I want to address the point that my right hon. Friend Lord Goldsmith made and the way his words have been interpreted, and I want to make the point absolutely clear. We have always been clear that we do not accept British dual nationals being used as diplomatic leverage. My right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey made the point with regard to the payment of the IMS debt that it is not easy, and he is right.
This Government remain committed to doing everything we can to explore all avenues to secure Nazanin’s release. We always act in what we believe to be her best interests, with the ultimate aim of securing her return home to be reunited with Richard and Gabriella.
Since the family requested assistance from my Department, officials have provided support to Nazanin’s family and are available to be contacted 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Since Nazanin’s release on furlough, we have also been able to talk directly to her through our ambassador in Tehran. We will continue to offer that support until Nazanin is returned home.
This Government and I have the utmost respect and admiration—I have said this directly to him and I am more than happy to say this publicly again— for Mr Ratcliffe’s stoicism, resolve and commitment to securing Nazanin’s release and for the support of his family. Mr Ratcliffe has met with the Foreign Secretary, with me and with senior officials. We will continue to update him, and the other families who have British dual nationals in incarceration, whenever we have information on progress or whenever we feel there is an update to do with the families in detention.
Our concern for Nazanin and her family is mirrored by our concern for all detained British nationals in Iran and their families, wherever they may be. Their welfare remains a top priority for this Government. Our ambassador in Tehran regularly lobbies on mistreatment allegations and on their health, whenever we have specific concerns or whenever a family member brings this issue to our attention. This Government will continue to lobby for the full and permanent release of those held in Iran.
On our international efforts, we will also collaborate with all relevant international partners to seek to put an end to Iran’s unacceptable practice of detaining foreign and dual nationals in an attempt to find some kind of diplomatic leverage. As part of a Canadian initiative on arbitrary detention, we are committed to enhancing international co-operation to prevent any state from arbitrarily detaining foreign nationals for coercive purposes.
It is not possible to give the hon. Gentleman details on that. As I said, we recognise the legal duty to repay the debt, and we will explore all legal options for doing so.
I once again express my deepest sympathies for Richard and his family, and indeed to all the families of those incarcerated in Iran. He has campaigned with such tireless commitment. The Government will continue to push in all the ways we can.
We of course consider this issue carefully. However, I have made the point already that—I suspect in large part because Iran does not recognise dual nationality and therefore does not recognise our authority to speak on this issue—that has proven to be of limited success in the instance of Nazanin. We will continue to hold the Iranian Government to account for their treatment of the British dual nationals in incarceration, including Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz. I assure the House that the Government remain committed to doing whatever we can to secure their release and will continue to work and make representations at every opportunity on their behalf.
I remind all Members that it was the Iranian Government who arrested these British dual nationals. It was the Iranian Government who applied these bogus charges against them. It was the Iranian Government who hold these people in incarceration and prevent them from coming home. It is the Iranian Government who are wholly and solely responsible for the appalling circumstances that these people find themselves in. The British Government will continue to work tirelessly to secure their release and return home. I assure everyone in the House that that will remain our priority until they are released and are able to return home.
I was planning to thank everyone who spoke in the debate, but the list is too long, I am afraid. MPs are very lucky that we can sit here and talk and it is recorded in Hansard, but our constituents are not always so lucky, so I will read some words from Richard Ratcliffe:
“Today marks day 2,054 of Nazanin’s detention. We are approaching our 6th Christmas apart. A little girl has been without her mother for 5 and a half years. It did not have to be like this. Back in 2017—when the now Prime Minister scrambled following his false statements in Parliament that are still used to justify Nazanin’s second case—he promised to resolve the debt we owe to Iran which is the reason for Nazanin’s detention, effectively setting a price for her release. He has now been Prime Minister for two years, yet that promise is unkept—but remembered in Tehran. The Prime Minister did not visit me on hunger strike, though he did pass one morning without coming over. His government continues to put British citizens in harm’s way. Nazanin's story shames this country.”
I do not think I could have put it any better. I read Richard Ratcliffe’s words so they can be recorded in Hansard.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).