My Lords, with the permission of the House, I shall repeat the Answer to an Urgent Question in the other place. The Answer is as follows:
“Mr Speaker, with your permission, I should like to make a Statement on the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. The whole House will join me in expressing our profound concern about the ordeal of this young mother, who has spent the past 19 months in jail in Iran, and every honourable Member will join the Government in urging the Iranian authorities to release her on humanitarian grounds.
I spoke by phone to her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, yesterday, and we agreed to meet later this week. I told Mr Ratcliffe that the whole country is behind him and that we all want to see his wife home safely.
In view of the understandable concern, I propose to describe the background to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case and the efforts that the Government are making to secure her release. In April last year, she was visiting her relations in Iran, along with her daughter, Gabriella, who was then only 22 months old, when she was arrested at Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran while trying to board her flight back to the UK. The British Government have no doubt that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran on holiday, and that that was the sole purpose of her visit.
As I said in the House last week, my remarks on this subject before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee could and should have been clearer. I acknowledge that the words I used were open to being misinterpreted, and I apologise to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family if I have inadvertently caused them any further anguish.
The House should bear in mind that Iran’s regime—and no one else—has chosen to separate this mother from her infant daughter for reasons that even it finds difficult to explain or describe. On 9 September 2016, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was brought before a secret trial and sentenced to serve five years in prison, supposedly for plotting to overthrow the Islamic republic. The House will know that, as far as we can tell, no further charges have been brought against her and no further sentence has been imposed since that occasion over a year ago.
Eleven days after Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister raised her case with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran in New York on 20 September 2016. Two days later, I raised her case with my Iranian counterpart, Mr Zarif. For the sake of completeness the House should also know that the Prime Minister, the right honourable Theresa May, raised Mrs Ratcliffe’s imprisonment with President Rouhani on 9 August 2016, and my predecessor as Foreign Secretary, my right honourable friend the Member for Runnymede, wrote to the Iranian Foreign Minister about her plight and other consular cases on 29 August 2016.
At every meeting with our Iranian counterparts, my colleagues and I have taken every opportunity to raise the cases of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other British nationals held in Iranian jails. We have expressed our concerns at every level—official, ministerial and Prime Ministerial—on every possible occasion during the 19 months that she has been in jail. In addition, Mr Ratcliffe has held regular meetings with my honourable friend the Member for Bournemouth East, formerly the Minister for the Middle East, and with the current Minister, my honourable friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire.
A situation where a British mother is held in these circumstances is bound to cast a shadow over Britain’s relations with Iran at a moment when, in the aftermath of the agreement of the nuclear deal in July 2015 and the easing of sanctions, we had all hoped to witness a genuine improvement. So I shall travel to Iran myself later this year to review the full state of our bilateral relations and drive home the strength of feeling in this House, and in the country at large, about the plight of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other consular cases.
In order to maximise the chances of achieving progress, I would venture to say that honourable Members should place the focus of responsibility on those who are keeping Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe behind bars, and who have the power to release her whenever they choose. We should be united in our demand that the humanitarian reasons for releasing her are so overwhelming that, if Iran cares about its reputation in this country, its leaders should now do what is manifestly right. I commend the Statement to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, like my right honourable friend in the other place, I should like to say, first, that I am sure all noble Lords will join us in sending our thoughts to those affected by yesterday’s earthquake on the Iran-lraq border.
No one who listened to Richard Ratcliffe over the weekend can be in any doubt about how urgent it is for Nazanin’s mental and physical health that she is returned to her family as soon as possible. The Foreign Secretary said that he would be meeting Mr Ratcliffe this Wednesday and that he would be explaining the position on diplomatic status. Will the Minister undertake to report to the House on these discussions and on any possible outcome and progress?
I note that in the other place, the Foreign Secretary apologised for his mistake—being very clear that she was on holiday. However, will he write to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee correcting the record formally?
We all agree that the responsibility for Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s incarceration and mistreatment lies entirely with the Iranian authorities, and we all unite in urging them to restore her to freedom. But every single Member of the Government should speak with one voice on this subject. Sadly, that was not reflected by the Environment Secretary over the weekend.
In repeating the Statement, the Minister referred to the Prime Minister making representations at head of government level in the past. Will she urge the Prime Minister to do this again, especially in advance of the Foreign Secretary’s visit to Iran?
I, too, reiterate our thoughts for all those affected by the earthquake in Iran. The noble Lord raises a number of issues, and I hope to be able to answer them as well as I can. On diplomatic protection, we are looking at all aspects of this case, and the Foreign Secretary is looking forward to discussing the case with Richard Ratcliffe when he meets him on Wednesday. I believe that the House will be updated—to the extent that it is reasonable and proper in the light of the continuing discussions around the safe release of Nazanin, we will come back and update the House as and when we can.
On the comments of my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, in the other place today I think he went further than he has previously. He said that it was his mistake, and he has retracted the statement—and clearly, he has done so publicly—that Nazanin was there in any other capacity than on holiday. I am sure that those who heard his initial statement will also hear the words he went on to say today.
On the comments of my right honourable friend the Environment Secretary, what is often not reported in the press is that he actually said:
“There is no reason she should be in prison as far as anyone knows”.
I think that Her Majesty’s Government would agree with that—so he was not speaking in a different fashion.
Finally, on the role of the Prime Minister in all these discussions, the noble Lord is right that, if it is appropriate, I am sure she will want to involve herself in Nazanin’s safe return. However, it may not be—and it may be that other routes are better.
My Lords, I am glad that the right honourable Foreign Secretary has now apologised for his Statement to the Foreign Affairs Committee and for the “anguish”, as he put it, it has caused. He said in the Commons—I listened to it just now—that he got it wrong, and accepts that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was on holiday, of course, visiting her parents. But he also says that he “could have been clearer”, rather than more accurate. Does the Minister agree that, in such sensitive situations, we always have to be immensely careful as to what we say and do?
As noble Lords know, I have raised this case repeatedly in this House—and I pay tribute here to Richard Ratcliffe. For two months now, the Foreign Office has had the legal advice of Nobel laureate lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, which concludes that the Government have the power to take legal action against the Iranian Government to protect Mrs Ratcliffe’s rights as a British citizen. Will they now take such action so that, at last, Nazanin and Gabriella can be brought home?
I am not sure that it is really the time now to go into more detail about the Foreign Secretary’s comments. We know exactly what he said and we know now what he has admitted was his mistake.
On the point about the legal advice, as with all Foreign Office policies we explore all options that will support or further our objectives. That includes, obviously, working with external lawyers where they might have an input. So I can confirm that conversations are continuing with a number of third parties, all of whom are engaging with the Foreign Office to make sure that we can ensure the safe return of Nazanin as soon as possible.
My Lords, there is a danger of creating a smokescreen to defend Cabinet Ministers on this. It is clearly a very sensitive issue. A simple question is whether the Foreign Secretary was aware of the facts when he made his statement to the Foreign Affairs Committee.
My Lords, while we welcome the strong condemnation of the cruel and arbitrary detention of Mrs Ratcliffe, would it not add strength to our protest if we were consistent in our condemnation of human rights abuses wherever they occur? I give the example of the recently departed Defence Secretary, who on two occasions very recently said that we should not talk about human rights when discussing arms deals with Saudi Arabia. Earlier he said the same thing about China. Is it not important that we should be totally consistent in condemning abuses of human rights wherever they occur?
The noble Lord is absolutely right: the human rights situation in Iran remains dire and we are determined to continue to hold the Government to account. We frequently release statements condemning the human rights situation in Iran and lead action by the international community. We regularly raise human rights issues in dialogue with Iran. However, we must be clear: there is no link, nor should there be, between consular cases and many other issues.
My Lords, the Foreign Secretary’s remarks, which the noble Baroness has repeated, sound more like a plea of mitigation than anything else, but a plea of mitigation is effective only if it is preceded by an unequivocal apology. In truth, the apology which the Foreign Secretary made when this matter was debated in the other place had to be dragged out of him after some 15 or 20 minutes. The truth of the matter is that the Foreign Secretary is not up to his responsibilities, and this is an eloquent indication of that. The Prime Minister knew what she was getting when she appointed him. It is now time for her to take personal responsibility for the case we are discussing and ensure that the Foreign Secretary is no longer able to dabble in it.
My Lords, will my noble friend please confirm that the Government are pursuing all negotiating avenues to release this person and other political prisoners, given that when I was involved in negotiations to free hostages in Iraq in 1990, many of the avenues that were worth pursuing were not governmental whatever, but involved religious and other bodies that have a power which many Governments do not?
I know that my noble friend has significant experience of negotiating the release of British nationals. He will know that every day in some part of the world a UK national or dual national is detained and another is released. Some of these cases are known only to family, some are known to family and our consular teams and others are more widely known, but in each case where we are involved, the Government give individual advice based on a judgment of what is the best interest of the person involved and the wishes of the family. The reason the Government sought private approaches to the Iranian Government in this case—the humanitarian case of a mother separated from her child—is that we believe from experience that such an approach is the right one. We have followed this persistently and regularly, informing the family at all turns. Therefore, there are many routes through which we can secure the release of Nazanin and other detainees. They may be private or public and, as I said to the noble Baroness, may involve third parties.