After so many similar stories – and my own personal experience – I should be used to this story line by now. But every time an innocent foreign national is arrested in Tehran to be leveraged for political gain, I feel the same sense of nausea.
For now, though, I will rejoice in knowing that Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her daughter have been reunited, even if it’s only temporary.
“Today was a genuine surprise after all the disappointments. We have been burned by hope before, so it had been easier to presume disappointment would come again. But it didn’t – she is outside those prison walls. And we are all so pleased,” her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, said in a statement on Thursday.
After more than two years of uncertainty, false promises and mental anguish, the end of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s prison ordeal is likely coming to a close.
On Thursday Zaghari-Ratcliffe enjoyed her first breath of freedom since she was detained while visiting her family on a vacation in her native Iran. She was arrested at the airport as she was preparing to return home to London with her then-2-year-old daughter, Gabriella, on April 3, 2016. Eight hundred seventy-three days ago.
Nearly a year longer than the seemingly endless 544 days I spent in the same prison. Tried on similar unproved charges. Kept there by order of the same judge – Abdolghasem Salavati – doing the bidding of the same intelligence branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. The regime’s most egregious hostage takers. The target of the same sort of far-fetched propaganda campaign by Iran’s twisted state media apparatus.
If previous cases are any indication, the furlough is a way to calibrate and manage the international reaction to a case that has been widely seen as the epitome of injustice. If the reaction is a positive one, her release will be extended.
If there is more outrage, she may end up back in prison, which would undoubtedly be blamed on her husband’s efforts to draw attention to her plight, which is in fact precisely why she has been granted this reprieve in the first place.
That’s what happened with Baquer Namazi, an 81-year-old American citizen in poor health who remains unable to leave Iran. His son Siamak remains in Evin prison.
Other foreign nationals, including Americans, also remain imprisoned in Iran. One of them is Xiyue Wang, a Princeton researcher who was given a 10-year sentence on a spying charge supposedly for copying historical documents without proper permission. He was in Iran legally on a student visa.
Among the conditions of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s furlough are that she is not to speak to members of the media, step foot in any foreign embassy, or attempt to leave the country.
In the statement that Richard Ratcliffe circulated, he also alludes to conversations between Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s father and judiciary officials in recent days who acknowledged that the “IRGC has gone way too far in their duties and in the way they have handled your daughter’s case.”
Late last year, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release seemed imminent when Boris Johnson, then Britain’s foreign secretary, announced he would be visiting Tehran. When that trip failed to result in Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s freedom, her husband redoubled his public outreach. A petition calling for her release on the popular advocacy website Change.org has received more than 1.8 million signatures to date.
“Furlough is not full freedom – we want her home, not just on holiday from prison – but it is still such a good step,” Ratcliffe said in his statement Thursday. “I promised Nazanin I will keep campaigning until she is home in the UK, so we don’t get caught in some limbo of house arrest. But after 873 days it is a massive step.”
Such efforts are integral in raising the profile of a case, but ultimately, they don’t move Tehran to release hostages. There is always a concession. In this case it may be an old debt that the Islamic republic claims it is owed by London, or perhaps it’s something else.
In Tehran the American idiom “freedom ain’t free” takes on a whole new meaning.
After four decades, it’s the habit of serial hostage-taking that is the sorry legacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The practice undermines every attempt by the regime to be considered a reliable state, it embodies all of the inhumane tendencies of a system that places no value in an individual’s rights, and ultimately it is never worth the perceived gains extracted from the other country involved, as it only serves to further sully the regime’s already atrocious track record on human rights.