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Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: Forced Confession

Volume 715: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2022

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

The treatment of Nazanin by the Islamic Republic of Iran has been horrendous. Her ordeal was exacerbated when Iran made it clear that it would not allow her to leave Tehran airport unless she signed a document. A UK official was present to facilitate the departure of both Nazanin and Anoosheh Ashoori, and passed on the message from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that she needed to sign a confession. Given the situation that Iran put Nazanin in at the airport, she took the decision to sign the document. No UK official forced Nazanin to do so.

Iran has a practice of insisting that detainees sign documents before they are released. Nothing about the cruel treatment by Iran of detainees can be described as acceptable, including at the point of release. We will continue to raise human rights concerns with the Islamic Republic of Iran, including over its detention of foreign nationals. The Government of Iran must end their practice of unfairly detaining British and other foreign nationals. We will continue to work with like-minded international partners to achieve that end.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. Every time I ask a question about the subject, I hope that it is behind me. When we celebrated Nazanin’s return in this Chamber, I thought I had asked my final urgent question about her, but this is now my ninth, after the shocking revelation that she was forced to sign a confession under duress before boarding the plane back to the UK from Iran.

For days in the run-up to her release, the IRGC had tried to make Nazanin write out and sign a document listing the crimes of which she was wrongly accused, admitting guilt, requesting clemency and promising not to sue or criticise the Iranian Government. At Tehran airport on 16 March, the day she was eventually allowed to fly back to the UK, she was again asked to do so by Iran. Instead, she tore up the piece of paper. It was only when a UK official told her that she had to sign it if she was going to board the plane that was waiting to take her home that she finally caved and gave Iran what it wanted. Nazanin returned home, but the toll on my constituent after six years of detention is unimaginable and unacceptable. I do not accept what the Minister is saying—that no one forced her. Nazanin knew that she could not get on the plane otherwise; the UK official told her that she had to sign that document to board the plane.

The human rights organisation Redress has written to the Foreign Secretary this week, setting out the view that the forced confession was

“part and parcel of the pattern of torture Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had suffered since she was first detained in 2016 as it involves further infliction of severe suffering”

and that it appears that, in telling her to sign,

“UK officials were complicit in an unlawful act by the Iranian authorities”

in violation of Government policy. I do not have to tell the Minister or anyone else in this House how serious an allegation that is. Redress and Nazanin’s family, including her husband, who is in the Gallery, argue that it is part of a systemic failure to respond to the torture of British citizens by foreign Governments and to hold those Governments to account.

I ask the Minister the following questions. For what reason was my constituent required to sign a forced confession? Did the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister personally authorise UK officials to advise Nazanin to sign the forced confession, or was that decision taken by officials without their knowledge? What is the status in UK law of the forced confession and of Nazanin’s two convictions in Iran? How can they be annulled? Is there any link between the UK Government’s refusal to accompany Nazanin to her trial in 2021 and the forced confession? Finally, will the Minister acknowledge and denounce Nazanin’s torture in Iran and commission an independent review of the UK’s approach to the torture of British citizens in Iran?

I thank the hon. Member for her questions and for raising Nazanin’s case so many times in this place.

As I said in my opening remarks, the Iranian authorities made clear at the airport that they would not allow Nazanin to leave unless she signed a document. I also said that the UK official present passed the message on to Nazanin. Given the situation in which Iran had placed her, she agreed to sign the document. The UK official did not force her to do so.

Iran put Nazanin through a cruel and intolerable ordeal, and FCDO officials raised allegations of torture with the Iranian authorities at the time. We have not received a response, but Iran is in no doubt about our concern at their treatment of Nazanin and our human rights concerns more generally.

The news that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was forced to sign this so-called confession is just the latest evidence of contemptible, despicable treatment of her by the Iranian authorities. In the light of that and all the other malign activities of the Iranian regime that we know of, may I ask the Minister why British officials in Vienna are currently supporting an agreement that would remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the foreign terrorists list? Are those reports correct, and if so, will the Minister give me an assurance that the United Kingdom Government will not put their name to any such agreement?

What I would say in response to the question about the negotiations in Vienna is that we have reached the end of the talks there to restore the nuclear deal. The deal that is on the table would return Iran to full compliance with its commitments under the joint comprehensive plan of action, and would return the United States to the deal. This deal represents a significant, comprehensive and fair offer to Iran, which would benefit the Iranian people. Iran should take the offer on the table as a matter of urgency, because there will not be a better one.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question, and I think that the whole House is hugely grateful for the tenacity of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq).

It is right that the whole House celebrated when Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was finally released after four and a half years in unlawful and cruel detention by the Iranian authorities, but it remains the case that this Government, and particularly the Prime Minister, have serious questions to answer over their gross mishandling of the detention of her and other British nationals in Iran. Nazanin said herself that the Prime Minister’s mistakes had had a “lasting impact”, and that she had “lived in the shadow” of them for four and a half years.

We recognise the sensitive and difficult negotiations that led to the agreement for Nazanin’s release, but it is incredibly concerning that she was forced to sign a last-minute false confession as a condition of her release. Did the UK Government agree to that condition, and if so, was it the Foreign Secretary or another official who signed it off? What is the Government’s assessment of how the confession could be used by the Iranian Government against Nazanin in the future?

The Government must also answer the questions about their failure to secure the release of the British-Iranian Morad Tahbaz, who remains languishing in an Iranian jail. Tahbaz’s family were repeatedly told by senior politicians and officials at the Foreign Office that he would be included in any release deal, but that clearly did not happen. In the House on Wednesday 16 March, when I asked the Foreign Secretary about Tahbaz’s case, she said:

“we have secured his release on furlough. He is now at home.”—[Official Report, 16 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 945.]

However, Tahbaz’s family have made it clear that that is untrue. He was released for a mere 48 hours, and has since been returned to the “abhorrent and appalling” conditions of prison.

It is shameful that Iran continues to use Tahbaz as a pawn. I wrote to the Foreign Secretary about it, and I received a response this morning. I thank her for that response—received within the last hour—but we must have transparency. Can the Minister tell us why Morad Tahbaz has not been able to return home to the UK alongside Nazanin and Anoosheh Ashoori, as his family were promised? What progress is being made on securing Tahbaz’s release, and what progress has there been on securing his release to the UK, as was privately promised? Finally, what progress is being made on securing a visa for his wife to end the current travel ban?

I think that, in response to a number of other questions, I have already set out the situation relating to Nazanin and the situation in which she found herself. Iran does have a practice of insisting that detainees sign documents before releasing them, but the UK official did not force Nazanin to do so.

The Iranian Government committed themselves to releasing Morad Tahbaz from prison on indefinite furlough. Iran has failed to honour that commitment, and we continue to urge Iranian authorities at every opportunity to release him immediately.

Today’s revelations just add to the horror that we all feel about the continuing treatment of Nazanin, but she is not the only UK dual national, in Iran or elsewhere, to suffer such treatment. May I bring to the Minister’s attention the case of Alaa Abdel Fattah, a UK-Egypt dual national currently detained in Egypt, who has been tortured and has been on hunger strike for 53 days? Will the Minister meet his family and make representations to the Government of Egypt, hopefully with the same vigour that she has shown in relation to Nazanin?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that case. I can reassure him that the FCDO is supporting Mr Abdel Fattah, and is urgently seeking consular access to him. We are in contact with Egyptian authorities about his case, and have raised it at the highest levels.

I commend the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for asking the urgent question, and you, Mr Speaker, for granting it. I must confess that I had hoped we had spoken about Nazanin for the last time in the House, but I agree that this needs to be dug into properly. I salute Nazanin and Richard’s bravery and, indeed, dignity—an ongoing dignity—and it is a great failure on all our parts that we are still needing to look at this issue.

For me, this boils down to the fundamental question of whether the last-minute confession was a surprise to the FCDO officials. It was certainly a surprise to Nazanin. The Minister has said today that Iran has a long-standing policy of demanding or extracting last-minute phoney confessions. Was this part of the FCDO deal? I acknowledge that these deals are not whiter than white—I do not think any of us are naive about that point—but was this phoney confession, this illegal phoney confession, part of the deal, and if it was, who in the FCDO signed it off?

The fact that the UK FCDO was complicit in that illegality—and I will happily be told that that is not the case—will surely give rise to a deep moral hazard for other hostages elsewhere, and, indeed, for the credibility of the UK Government anywhere in any talks. If this was a surprise and was bounced on the FCDO official at the last minute, what protest has been made since, and what assessment has there been of what this phoney confession will mean for the security of Nazanin’s family who are still in Iran, given that it will be used as a tool by the Iranian Government against them?

As I said in an earlier answer, the Iranian authorities made clear at the airport that they would not let Nazanin leave unless she signed the document. The UK official passed on the message to Nazanin, and given the situation in which Iran had placed her, she agreed to sign it.

Although the Iranian regime is fully responsible for the plights of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori over the past six years, it is clear that the actions of the Foreign Office have not helped on many steps of their journey. Can we therefore have an independent inquiry into the actions and inactions of the Foreign Office that have hindered much of the progress that needed to be made?

Diplomats and civil servants within the Foreign Office have worked day and night to secure the release of Nazanin and Anoosheh, and on many other consular cases across the world.

The Minister has been asked this question twice, so I will try for a third time. Did the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister personally authorise UK officials to advise Nazanin to sign the forced confession at the airport in the way she has described, or was that decision taken by officials without their knowledge?

As I have made clear on several occasions now, the Iranian authorities made it clear at the airport that they would not allow Nazanin to leave unless she signed a document. As I have said, the official passed on the message to Nazanin, but the UK official did not force her to do so.

What we have heard today is just the latest horror after six years of mistreatment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe by the Iranian Government. No one is suggesting that the officials in the Foreign Office have not done everything they possibly could, but what we have heard today adds to the suspicion that we need assurances about the British Government’s actions and whether they contributed in any way to the difficulty in getting Nazanin home. Can we please have an independent inquiry so that we can be reassured?

As I have said in earlier answers, over all the time that Nazanin was detained and throughout the horrific experience she went through, officials and Ministers worked tirelessly to secure her release.

In 2017, the Prime Minister said that Nazanin was teaching people journalism in Iran. She now says that she lived in the shadow of his words for the rest of her time in prison. He has never retracted those words, and he has never apologised for the harm he personally caused Nazanin and her family. Can the Minister tell us why?

It was always in Iran’s gift to release Nazanin and Anoosheh. The UK will never accept our nationals being used for diplomatic leverage. The Prime Minister has previously apologised for the comments made about the case in 2017.

I am delighted to see Nazanin home, and I pay tribute to the work and dedication of her husband Richard. As the chair of the all-party group on deaths abroad, consular services and assistance, I have met him a number of times. Nobody is disputing the great work that the staff in the foreign service do, but the reality is that the cuts that this Government are bringing to bear, along with the words and behaviour of the Prime Minister, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said, created a huge amount of pressure and did a huge amount of damage to Nazanin’s situation. We need to understand the details of the forced confession, but we also need to understand what the Government will do to ensure that British citizens abroad who are incarcerated or who die in suspicious circumstances get the help and support that they deserve.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making the point that our officials and diplomats work tirelessly on consular cases to ensure that those who are unfairly detained are released. They are working across the globe to ensure that we support our British nationals.

I thank the Minister for her reply to the urgent question. I also commend the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for all that she does. She quite inspires us in this Chamber, and we thank her for that. Does the Minister not agree that the media story and confirmation of this forced confession is a serious one, because the confession was seen to be signed under protest? With great respect, the thought that one of our diplomatic officers was present is a sobering one. How can we improve the service and support for citizens of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland overseas?

I think I have answered the questions in relation to the circumstances, but we stand ready to work with Parliament and the Foreign Affairs Committee on its inquiry.