Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 25 October.
“It is indefensible and unacceptable that Iran has rejected Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s appeal against the new charges made against her. We continue to call on Iran to let her return home to the UK immediately. On 22 September, the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Iranian Foreign Minister to make clear our deep concern about the ongoing situation of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, alongside the continued detention of Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz. Iran must release British dual nationals who have been arbitrarily detained so that they can return home.
The Foreign Secretary spoke to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Richard Ratcliffe on 16 and 17 October respectively. Earlier this month, I spoke to the families of arbitrarily detained dual British nationals and reiterated that the UK Government, from the Prime Minister down, remain fully committed to doing everything we can to help them to return home. We also called for humanitarian treatment of detained British dual nationals. Their welfare remains a top priority for us. We lobby on health concerns and mistreatment allegations whenever we have specific concerns or a family member brings issues to our attention. We call on the Iranian Government immediately to allow health professionals into Evin prison to assess the situation of dual British nationals incarcerated there. We continue to raise their cases at the most senior levels and discuss them at every opportunity with our Iranian counterparts. Our ambassador in Tehran regularly raises our dual national detainees with the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office provides consular assistance to the families of British dual nationals detained in Iran wherever they seek our support.
The UK Government continue to engage with international partners and directly with the Government of Iran on a full range of issues of interest to the UK. Our priorities remain to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability, to promote stability and security in the region and to secure the full release of our dual national detainees. I can assure this House that the safety and welfare of all British dual nationals detained in Iran remains a top priority for the UK Government. We will continue to raise our concerns with our Iranian interlocutors at every level and we will not stop until those who have been detained unjustly are at home with their loved ones.”
On Monday, Nazanin’s husband Richard began a hunger strike outside the FCDO. I hope that as many noble Lords as possible from across the House will visit him if they have not already done so. When I met him on Monday, he repeated his description of the Government’s policy on Nazanin as a policy of waiting. Does the noble Lord think that is correct? In 2019 the Government granted Nazanin diplomatic protection. Will the noble Lord explain what this has achieved? What precisely the United Kingdom is doing, with our international allies, to bring an end to state hostage-taking by Iran?
My Lords, first, I think that I speak for all noble Lords in saying that we stand very much with all families experiencing the dreadful situation of their loved ones being detained in Iran. The Government will continue to do all we can to ensure that not only are representations made but that we seek their earliest release from Iran, so that they can be reunited with their families.
On the noble Lord’s specific point, we are very much aware of Richard Radcliffe and his situation. As the noble Lord said, he has begun a hunger strike. Tomorrow my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will meet Richard to discuss the issue, and I know that she has been very seized with the situation since her appointment.
With regard to the diplomatic protection, as the noble Lord will know, that move raised the issue to formal recognition in terms of state representation. Nevertheless, Iran still fails to recognise Nazanin’s dual nationality status.
I agree with the noble Lord in encouraging noble Lords to meet Richard, as I have done in advance of this Question. In last week’s debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, I raised Iran’s contravention of the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. A statement by the previous Foreign Secretary indicated that it was UK policy that Iran was in contravention of the convention. The concern is that with every new Foreign Secretary—and there have been five since Nazanin’s detention—officials wipe the slate clean. When the Foreign Secretary meets Richard, will she commit to press Iran to investigate this case formally, which is its duty under this convention?
My Lords, is it not the case that the Iranian authorities maintain that we owe them a very large sum of money relating to a cancelled contract some years ago? What is the Government’s position on that matter, and does it play a part in these discussions?
My Lords, one thing that we have been clear on is that this situation—the debt referred to by my noble friend—is a live issue bilaterally between the United Kingdom and Iran. On the debt itself, as I said last week during the debate on a QSD asked by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, there has been an adjournment on this case. I cannot go into the details, but the next hearing on this case and its details will be in April 2022. We have been clear what needs to happen is that Nazanin and others who are being held should be returned.
My Lords, if the Iranians believe that we owe them £400 million, and believe that we have promised that that money will be paid, without excusing the Iranian Government for any of things they are doing to the hostages, surely the Iranians have a sense that we have not been straight with them. Can we look at this £400 million again? Never mind the legal action, which has just been delayed. The Urgent Question repeat uses fine language but does not add up to anything at all. I put this to the Minister: there is a belief that there is more going on than we know about and that there is some reason why the Government keep hedging their bets and not getting on with it. What is it?
My Lords, as I said, I cannot go into the case itself; notwithstanding his comments about the sensitivity of commenting on an ongoing legal hearing, I am sure that the noble Lord will appreciate that I have shared as much as I can on the details of the case.
On what we are doing to seek Nazanin’s release and that of others, I assure the noble Lord that we are working in diplomatic channels and with international partners. I mentioned the Human Rights Council last week. We are raising these issues consistently and directly with the Iranians as well.
My Lords, this sorry saga has been going on for more than five years. Each time, the Government’s involvement seems to have made matters worse, not better. Will they recognise that the dual nationality issue is an excuse by Iran? This woman is a British citizen and should expect to be supported by the British Government. How come we have a claim for a global Britain but are unable to find a solution to release this shamefully wronged British citizen?
My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord that the Government have not prioritised this case and others. We continue to do so. Of course, there is a relationship with Iran on wider issues as well where, again, the Government have taken what I believe to be the right line, particularly in connection with the JCPOA. On this case and others, we will do all we can to ensure an early release. As far as the wider issues are concerned, they play into the general narrative but we are very much focused on individual cases.
My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point. We are consistently in touch with Nazanin directly. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to her on the 16th of this month. We are in direct contact with her, Richard Ratcliffe and other families to ensure that the issues my noble friend raises around health and general welfare are being addressed.
My Lords, if it is true that the Government owe Iran some money, is it not possible to have some form of compromise and a discussion with government lawyers to see whether something can be paid to it? The detail of whether there should be interest and that sort of thing can go through the laborious process until next April. Give Iran some money and see whether it does any good.
My Lords, as ever, the noble and learned Baroness puts forward a practical solution. However, she will know better than me the specific issues around the legality and sensitivity of ongoing legal proceedings. For me to comment any further would not be appropriate.
My Lords, having watched this cruel saga play out over the years, it is obvious that the Iranian regime—or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, to be more accurate—is playing mind games with a British citizen who is being used as a political pawn. Does the Minister agree that this matter must be completely divorced from any financial debt that may or may not have been incurred by different Governments of the day? If the UK Government accept liability in principle, surely the matter can now be settled amicably without either side losing face and the torture of a mother and her family can be brought to an end.
The noble Lord articulates the position very clearly; we should not focus on seeking to join the two issues. We do not believe that there is any reason for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to be detained in Iran, which is why we continue to implore the Iranians to ensure her early release and continue to campaign on that very principle.
My Lords, while I accept what my noble friend has just said, there is a debt and there is a hostage. Following on from the point made by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, can we not lodge this money with the United Nations, so that we acknowledge there is a debt and when she has been released, as she should be immediately on humanitarian grounds, we can go forward?
My Lords, when he was Foreign Secretary, the man who is now our Prime Minister misspoke about the reason for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe being in Iran. Should he not now take personal responsibility for getting her out, as those words undoubtedly worsened her position?