James Cleverly makes a statement to the House of Commons on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

3rd November 2020

James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, outlines the Government's efforts on behalf of all dual national British detainees in Iran to secure their permanent release on humanitarian grounds so that they can return home safely.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, if he will make a statement on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for raising this question. We are deeply concerned that Iran has issued new charges against Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. This is indefensible and unacceptable. We are relieved that the groundless new trial, which commenced on 2 November, was adjourned and that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe remains on furlough, but we will continue to call on Iran to make Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release permanent.

On 29 October, we summoned the Iranian ambassador to make clear our deep concerns about these new charges. We fully support the family’s request for officials from the embassy in Tehran to attend any court hearings. The UK Government issued a note of avowal formally requesting UK Government attendance at Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s recent 2 November hearing. So far, regrettably, we have not been granted access to Iranian judicial hearings of any of our dual British national detainees. We will continue to firmly lobby for access to them.

On 22 September, we summoned the Iranian ambassador and handed over a letter from E3 Foreign Ministers about the human rights situation in Iran, including our shared concern about the arbitrary detention of dual nationals. The ambassador in Tehran will continue to raise this with his Iranian counterpart. The Foreign Secretary has spoken directly to Foreign Minister Zarif three times since the summer and continues to raise the situation of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the other UK dual nationals in the strongest terms.

Since the Foreign Secretary was last at the Dispatch Box both he and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office officials have been in regular contact with Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family. The Foreign Secretary has spoken with both Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her husband, when he reiterated that the UK Government, from the Prime Minister down, remain committed to doing everything we can for her.

The UK Government continue to engage with international partners and directly with the Government of Iran on the full range of issues of interest to the UK. Our priority remains to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability, to promote stability and security in the region, to secure the release of all our dual national detainees, and to keep the diplomatic door open for a new talks with Iran.

Alongside our E3 partners, we are committed to the nuclear deal with Iran—the joint comprehensive plan of action, or JCPOA—as the best means available to monitor and constrain Iran’s nuclear programme. As we have said before, we are deeply concerned by Iranian non-compliance. Iran must engage with the dispute resolution mechanism, which we triggered with France and Germany on 14 January, and return to compliance. We also continue to have serious concerns regarding the implications for the security of the region with the expiry date of the United Nations conventional arms embargo on 18 October.

I can assure the House that the safety and good treatment of all dual national British detainees in Iran remains a top priority of the UK Government. We will continue to lobby at all levels for their permanent release on humanitarian grounds so that they can return home safely to their loved ones.

Before I begin, I would like to thank the Speaker’s Office for granting this urgent question, because I am aware that there is a lot of parliamentary business on at the moment.

The case of my constituent is well-rehearsed. She was arrested in Iran in 2016 and was handed a five-year sentence. We had dared to dream that she would be returning home next year in April, until last week, when she was told that she would be facing new trumped-up charges. As the Minister has pointed out, she went to court yesterday prepared to put forward her defence, and she was told that her case had been adjourned. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has told her family that she is sleepless with worry anticipating the next move from the Iranian authorities.

Before I ask the Minister some questions, I want to raise the issue of the £400 million debt that we owe Iran. The date for the court hearing for the debt was meant to be today, but last week we were told it was being postponed. On the very same day last week, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was told that she faces trumped-up new charges against her, that she has to go to court and that she may be sent back to prison. That was not a coincidence; it is a punishment.

I want to ask the Minister the following questions. Did the Government anticipate or risk-assess the consequences for Nazanin when they agreed to postpone the IMS debt hearing? Secondly, as we know, Nazanin is not the only British citizen being held as a political hostage in Iran. How many prisoners have the Government managed to get access to since the British embassy in Iran reopened in 2015? Is it more than zero? The Minister has touched on UK officials not being present at Nazanin’s court hearing yesterday. Will he clarify exactly what date they requested to attend and whether it was simply asked for, or was it asserted as a consular right? Finally, can the Minister give any examples of how Nazanin’s status of diplomatic protection has been or will be deployed by our Government to make a material difference in her case?

I know that the Government have continually denied the link between the debt that we owe Iran and Nazanin’s imprisonment, but burying our heads in the sand is costing my constituent her life. I know the Government have a lot on their plate at the moment with the pandemic, but I know the Minister well and I know he wants to bring Nazanin home. I am asking him to do a bit more and to try harder to resolve this debt issue, so that we can end the cycle of despair for Nazanin and her family.

I will finish by saying that this is my sixth urgent question about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in this House, and I sincerely hope it is the last one I will be asking.

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady, for whom I have a huge amount of respect, for her tireless campaigning on behalf of her constituent and more widely on the other British dual national detainees in Iran. It is commendable. She raises the question of the delay in the hearing about the IMS debt. As she said in her comments, these are unrelated issues. However, the adjournment of the November hearing is at the request of the Iranian Ministry of Defence. It would be inappropriate for me to comment further on ongoing legal positions in regard to that.

The hon. Lady also speaks about our requests for access to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the other British dual national detainees. That is something we continue to do. Requesting does not guarantee us access—indeed, demanding does not guarantee us access. What we are doing at every stage, while working with the Iranian Government at every level, is what we genuinely believe is in the best interests of our dual national detainees to secure their permanent release on humanitarian grounds, so that they can return home and be with their families.

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