Freed at last, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe asks: What took you so long?

'We’ve courted the media for the last six years so it would be harsh to not give anything back'

Friday, 25th March — By Isabelle Stanley

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Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe takes questions at a press conference held at Westminster


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SHOULDER to shoulder, the world’s press crowded into a small room on Monday, jostling for a place to hear from a woman we had been waiting six years to see.

The call had gone out late on Sunday: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was going to speak in public for the first time since being released from prison in Iran.

As journalists from the BBC, Guardian, Sky and the New Journal waited, murmuring in anticipation, the door to the conference room in the House of Commons swung open.

There were several false starts, doors swinging open, only to reveal frantic assistants.

But we had waited six years to hear her speak, 20 minutes in a stuffy Commons room was nothing.

The “charity worker from West Hampstead”, as she has been introduced in six years of articles, arrived, hand in hand with her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, looking calm and confident wearing blue and yellow colours for Ukraine.

This was a surreal moment: the woman from the photo at last in front of us. She had been the missing voice at all the rallies, protests and meetings. No longer would Mr Ratcliffe have speak for her.

Instead he sat by her side, and their daughter Gabriella played on her phone, unfazed by the fact her parents were appearing live on national TV. For a seven year-old, she has seen a lot.

After a speech from Hampstead and Kilburn MP Tulip Siddiq, Mr Ratcliffe had run through many thank yous before he dutifully admitted what most in the room were thinking: “Anyway you’re not here to hear me talk”.

The family with Tulip Siddiq

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was poised and calm, but those expecting a demure, grateful victim were set to be disappointed.

Instead, she was serious, confident and she spoke with great conviction about the injustice she felt.

She said: “I have been a pawn in the hands of the two governments over the past six years.

“I shouldn’t have been in prison for six years. It shouldn’t have happened and it did…I have seen five foreign secretaries over the course of six years. That is unprecedented. I was told many many times that ‘oh, we’re going to get you home’. That never happened.”

She added: “There was a time when I felt like I’m not going to trust [the foreign secretary] because I’ve been told many times I’m gonna get taken home but that never happened.”

Her case was linked to a £400 million debt the UK owed Iran for an unfulfilled order of tanks dating back right the way to the 1970s.

It was only when the government paid the debt last week, that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was freed.

Journalists were warned there may be questions Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe found too painful to discuss.

We knew she had spent the first years of her sentence in prison, much of it in solitary confinement. When asked what it had been like she declined to answer and was met with a moment of slight awkwardness and sympathy.

Tea and orange juice at the Hosues of Parliament

Despite her story appearing in worldwide headlines, and her campaign spreading across the country, she said she had found it difficult to follow the news.

“Prison is a very secluded place – we had visits every week, but I wanted to spend those with my daughter, so unless something was in the news, I didn’t know about it.,” she added.

“And there’s a lot to know, so I think we’ll spend a lot of nights sitting up, chatting and catching up on what happened.”

After a tense few days of negotiations, her plane had arrived at the RAF base Brize Norton in the early hours of Thursday.

There she walked down the steps and was met by an overjoyed Gabriella.

She smiled when she said: “That moment was precious, I had been waiting for it a long time and it was overwhelming. I was particularly overwhelmed seeing Gabriella and my husband, it was a very, very emotional moment.”

The joyful sentiments on the panel were sobered by the presence of Roxanne Tahbaz, the daughter of Morad Tahbaz, a British-Iranian national still being held captive in Iran.
His family were under the impression he would be returned with Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashori, but he was left behind.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe said: “I know how she feels, it is disappointing. He should have been on the plane home with us.”

She added: “The meaning of freedom will not be complete until the other dual nationals are free.”

She does not plan to return to Iran any time soon, and instead said “I’m looking forward to taking Gabriella to school and getting to know her friends and the community.

“It has been amazing to hold her, to braid her hair and brush her hair.”

The life that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe is returning to is greatly altered from the one she left behind. She is famous now, and her face is recognised everywhere she goes.

The family ask for privacy now, but she knows how far interest in the case has stretched.

“Gabriella told me on the phone one day ‘mummy, you’re very famous now, it goes you and then me and then daddy’. And I said, ‘but I want to have a normal life’ and she said: ‘don’t worry, it will only last a week’.”

The couple then collected Gabriella from her seat and quickly left the room ­– whisked away to a secret location to spend time together as a family before any return to their flat in West Hampstead can be considered.

Mr Ratcliffe’s sister, Rebecca, told the New Journal: “They’ve gone away now, just the three of them to spend time together. They’re still in the UK, or at least I hope they are because they’ve left Gabriella’s passport here.

“The press conference was to give people the chance to see them – we’ve courted the media for the last six years so it would be harsh to not give anything back, but now they want a total media-free break.

“They need time to get to know each other again.”

 

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