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Europe and the Growing Challenge of Iran’s ‘Hostage Taking'

Europe and the Growing Challenge of Iran’s ‘Hostage Taking'

Asharq Al-Awsat tells the story of four families fighting to bring their loved ones home
Saturday, 13 November, 2021 - 18:00

Richard Ratcliffe, who has been campaigning to bring his wife home for over five years, ended a three-week hunger strike today.

He spent the last 20 nights in a tent opposite the Foreign Office building in central London, in an attempt to ramp up pressure on the government to secure the release of his wife and other dual-nationals, held in Iran as “bargaining chips”.

Surrounded by #FreeNazanin posters and artwork crafted by his mother and his daughter Gabriella’s class, Ratcliffe looked much thinner and weaker, but no less resolved to continue his campaign to bring his wife home.

He said in a Twitter post: “Today I have promised Nazanin to end the hunger strike. Gabriella needs two parents.”

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested in Tehran in April 2016, as she was returning home to the UK after visiting family with her daughter Gabriella.

She was accused of plotting to overthrow Iran’s government, a charge she categorically denies, and served a five-year sentence which ended earlier this year.

She was not however allowed to go back to the UK, and was sentenced to a further year in prison and a one-year travel ban, on charges of spreading “propaganda against the system”, for having participated in a protest outside the Iranian Embassy in London in 2009.

She appealed the verdict, but the decision was upheld by a court in Tehran last month.

Like Ratcliffe, many families condemn Iran's "hostage taking", and call on their governments to protect dual nationals from being used as "bargaining chips".

Asharq Al-Awsat speaks to four families campaigning to bring their loved ones home.

Two hunger strikes in 3 years

There was growing concern amongst Ratcliffe’s family and supporters about his health, but he was determined to last as long as it was medically safe to do so.

“It felt like either we escalate now, or the Revolutionary Guards do,” Ratcliffe told Asharq Al-Awsat explaining his decision to go on a second hunger strike in three years.

“I asked the Foreign Secretary when I spoke to her (last month) about the consequences (the UK would impose) after Nazanin’s sentence. There were none.”

He noted that “there might be consequences if they put her back in prison, but (for us) that would be too late. This is what triggered this hunger strike.”

He continued: “This is something we can do, we do not have to wait for the government. I am hoping to make the point that I am not going to let this drift, (the government) needs to resolve this.”

Ratcliffe was fully aware of the dangers of going on a hunger strike in near-freezing temperatures, when he made the decision.

“It takes a few days to adjust to sleeping on the streets, it is precarious, it is cold,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat on his second day without food.

Fast forward to day 20, Ratcliffe does not feel hungry anymore, but feels the cold more. “I can feel it in my fingers and toes. I am definitely slower and rougher,” he said.

His last hunger strike, which was in solidarity with his wife, lasted 15 days and resulted in his daughter being returned to the UK.

“This time, it was my decision,” he explained.

Four demands

Ratcliffe presented four demands to Boris Johnson’s government, “three sticks and one carrot”.

The sticks include “being honest that this is a hostage situation, punishing the perpetrators by imposing Magnitsky-style sanctions on them, and working with allies within the JCPOA negotiations to commit Iran to stop taking hostages.”

As for the carrot, Ratcliffe calls on the government to pay a decades-old debt owed to Iran, which he links to his wife’s detention.

“It is unconscionable that the government doesn’t solve that,” he says.

An outstanding debt

Ratcliffe considers that his wife is being used as “leverage” by Iran, with regard to the UK's failure to pay an outstanding £400 million debt to Iran, part of a 1971 arms deal dispute. On the other hand, the UK considers it “unhelpful” to connect wider bilateral issues with those arbitrarily detained in Iran.

The government says that it continues to explore options to resolve this 40-year-old case, and that discussions are ongoing.

Following a meeting with UK Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, James Cleverly, in London earlier this week, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani said the size of the payment to Iran, including interest, had been agreed by the two sides, revealing it was less than £500m, according to the Guardian.

London and Tehran seemed close to an agreement last summer, before talks came to a halt.

“We had reasons to be hopeful over the summer, there was quite a lot of negotiations going on. Those have obviously hit a wall and stopped,” Ratcliffe confirms. Dr. Carla Ferstman, a senior Lecturer at the University of Essex School of Law and Human Rights Centre, said that it was “important for the UK government to repay the debt in accordance with court judgments, which have affirmed that the UK has this obligation. The obligation to repay the debt exists irrespective of the hostage situation.”

She adds that while “one would not want to take action that will simply encourage more hostage-taking,” it is “at the same time vital for states to also take into account the humanitarian consequences and the extreme suffering of the persons detained and their families.”

“What is important is for the many states who find themselves in this situation to coordinate their actions to maximize their collective impact.”

A detained father

Like Ratcliffe, Elika Ashoori, daughter of Anoosheh Ashoori, a 66-year-old British-Iranian jailed for spying charges in the notorious Evin prison, connects her father’s case to the outstanding debt.

She and her brother Aryan Ashoori have joined Ratcliffe a few nights in his camping site outside the Foreign Office.

Recalling the story of Ashoori’s arrest, Elika tells Asharq Al-Awsat: “My father went to Iran in the summer of 2017, to visit his mum who was 86 years old at the time. She was going to undergo knee surgery, and he went to nurse her.”

Unsuspecting of his fate, Ashoori was arrested on his way to the shops in August 2017. “A van pulled up, they asked his name, and once he confirmed it, they put a bag over his head and they took him in.”

The retired engineer, who holds British and Iranian passports, was directly taken to Evin prison. He was tried there on charges of spying for the Mossad, and is now serving a 10-year sentence.

“He was in solitary confinement for two and a half months, and was then taken to the general ward, where he has been until this day.”

Elika explains that her family tried to go through an appeals process in Iran to overturn her father’s sentence. “But obviously, it is not a real sentence, nor a real charge. So they have rejected that.”

She adds that “we have since discovered that this is the {basic charge} used by the Iranian government to arrest dual nationals taken as hostages for Tehran’s gains.”

Elika sees a clear link between her father’s imprisonment and the historic outstanding debt that the UK owes Iran since 1979.

“It is not a secret anymore,” she says. “There have been talks between governments, to settle this debt. But we had Covid-19 and Brexit happening in the last couple of years, which contributed to delaying the process.”

She adds: “Both governments have at some point publicly acknowledged the situation as what it is now. There have been deals that were close to being made, but they have fallen through for reasons we are not told.”

Elika believes that her father is “collateral damage” between countries trying to make deals that would benefit them.

Since Ashoori’s arrest, his family and representatives have held multiple meetings with the FCDO, but these have seldom resulted in tangible progress, Elika says.

She explains: “We had meetings with both Jeremy Hunt and Dominic Raab. The nature of these meetings is always similar. They give us an update on ongoing negotiations, and confirm that the dual-national cases are important to them, and that they are doing their best.”

She laments that they have been hearing “the same forms of response for four years."

French tourist facing espionage charges

On the other side of the Channel, a family is breaking their silence after the detention of Benjamin Brière (35 years old), a French national who traveled by himself to Iran, onboard a van.

His sister Blandine Brière stopped receiving updates from him in May 2020, until her and her family discovered that he was arrested not far from the city of Mashhad, where he was visiting a natural park.

He was accused of flying a drone and taking photographs in a “prohibited area”. He has since been charged of espionage and propaganda against the Iranian regime.

Denying the charges, Blandine maintains that her brother, who’s been in prison in the city of Mashhad for over 14 months, was “an ordinary French tourist, who bought a tourist drone from a supermarket”.

She tells Asharq Al-Awsat: “He went traveling in Iran, fell in love with the country and its people. And found himself jailed overnight.”

Benjamin receives regular consular visits, usually once every two months.

“We pleaded time and time again with the French government, and with President (Emmanuel) Macron, to intervene on behalf of Benjamin, but we continue to be in the dark about his case,” laments Blandine.

“We receive no word of progress from the authorities, other than {Benjamin is doing fine, do not worry, he is not mistreated}.”

In terms of communicating directly with Benjamin, Blandine says that throughout the past year, she could only speak to him three times. But over the last few months, “things have improved and I am able to speak to him every two to three weeks over the phone.”

Blandine notes that her brother should have access to a phone call a day, and that he “fights” daily for his right to speak to his family.

That said, Benjamin can still contact the French consul freely. Benjamin is the only foreign prisoner, publicly acknowledged by Iran, not to have dual citizenship. He only holds a French passport.

Faced with silence from the French authorities, Benjamin’s family decided to raise his case public a few months ago, “to try and move things along.”

Blandine explains: “We have been asked to keep quiet about Benjamin’s imprisonment in the beginning, in the hope that his case gets sorted out. However, had we continued with our silence, things would still not have improved. So, we have decided to raise my brother’s case publicly. The situation is obscure; we are deprived of all information.”

Blandine, like the other families fighting to bring their loved ones’ home, believes that he brother could be a “bargaining chip” used by Iran to advance its interests.

She says: “Given that we have no information about the judicial process in Iran, no ruling on Benjamin’s case, this is the only scenario that makes sense. We now just ask our government to do what is necessary to bring him home.”

Blandine adds: “we can now clearly say that Benjamin is hostage of negotiations between countries, and that he serves as leverage”.

A 'hostage' on death row

Vida Mehran-nia’s Swedish-Iranian husband, Ahmadreza Djalali, was arrested by officials from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence while travelling by car from Tehran to Karaj in April 2016.

Ahmadreza, who works at a medical university in Stockholm, went to Iran after receiving an invitation to attend a workshop on disaster medicine.

“He planned to stay in the country for two weeks and to return to Sweden on 28 April 2016. However, he has still not returned,” his wife tells Asharq Al-Awsat.

“At the time of his arrest, the Iranian officials did not present an arrest warrant, nor did they inform Ahmadreza of the reason for his arrest”.

She continues: “Approximately two weeks later, they claimed that Ahmadreza had collaborated with Israel."

He was later sentenced to death for allegedly passing on classified information to Israel's Mossad intelligence agency.

Ahmadreza and his family vehemently deny the “baseless charges”.

“Until today, not one document of proof or evidence has been presented by Iran's judicial power or the ministry of Intelligence. On the contrary, they have ignored all the undeniable evidence and documents that Ahmadreza and his lawyers provided as proof of his innocence,” maintains his wife.

Vida was denied all contact with her husband for many months.

She says: “It has been almost a year the Evin prison officials have blocked contact between us and Ahmadreza. However, just about four months ago, when his mother passed away, officials unblocked his contact with his family inside Iran. He is still denied contact with us in Sweden."

Ahmadreza’s treatment in Evin prison has been particularly cruel, and “has involved various inhuman” tactics, Vida says.

She continues: “It is enough to refer to a sentence used by UN human rights experts that stated: {There is only word to describe the severe physical and psychological ill-treatment of Djalali, and that is torture}".

Like the families of Nazanin, Anoosheh and Benjamin, Vida believes that her husband is being used as a bargaining chip.

She says: “As we clearly see in international media, it seems that Ahmadreza is being used as a bargaining chip to mount political pressure on the EU, Belgium and Sweden in particular. There are a couple of legal challenges and trials in these countries that outrage the Iranian regime”..

“It is assumed by the media and various entities that Ahmadreza is a hostage,” she concludes.

A worsening phenomenon

Hostage taking is not a new phenomenon, but Dr. Ferstman believes it is fair to say, that the practice “has increased in recent years.”

She explains: “Part of the increased media attention stems from the fact that the families affected are in more contact with each other. This has improved solidarity, but has also increased knowledge about the scale of the problem and heightened media interest.”

As to whether state-sponsored hostage taking usually works, Ferstman says that “it depends what one considers to be the objective. It is rarely just about the immediate trade or concession.”

She continues: “What the practice does do is heighten mistrust, complicate international relations and also (at least in the case of dual-nationals) instill fear in persons living abroad to come back to Iran to visit family or to engage professionally or economically with Iran.”

“This has long-term ramifications on the country and ultimately fosters Iran's isolation.”

Ferstman considers that the UN has an important role.

“The UN human rights machinery - including the UN Special Rapporteur on Iran and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention have regularly commented on the practice."

She adds: “But equally, given the international dimension of the problem and the targeting of nationals from an array of countries impacting peace and security, both the general assembly and the security council also have an important role to play.”

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