Soft toppling - Iran’s latest use of a dual-national as a political pawn

So Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British woman detained more than two months ago in Iran, separated from her two-year-old daughter and held for weeks in solitary confinement, is… a revolutionary foreign agent apparently hellbent on overthrowing the Iranian government.

According to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe “has participated in coup plots”. “Through membership in foreign companies and institutions”, this 30-something employee of a charitable arm of the Thomson Reuters company has “participated in designing and executing media and cyberplots with the aim of the peaceful overthrow of the Islamic Republic establishment.”

Dastardly stuff. The Revolutionary Guards, who appear to have been overdoing their reading of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, also talk about “the media corporations of hegemonic governments, especially the evil-minded British media”. It seems Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s “crime” might actually be that she’s an employee - albeit in a non-media capacity and with no working connection to Iran - of a Western multinational media company with its origins (as Reuters) in the UK, the Guards’ traditional cartoon villain on the international stage.

Let’s take a step back. What we do know is that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained at Tehran airport with her infant daughter Gabriella as she was about to board a flight home to Britain after visiting Iranian relatives (Nazanin is a dual UK-Iranian national, her husband is Richard Ratcliffe, a British national). She was initially held in jail in Tehran for approximately a week before being relocated - for no clear reason - some 1,000 kilometres away to an undisclosed detention centre in the south-eastern city of Kerman. There she remained, allowed only a handful of brief telephone calls to her family, one face-to-face visit with her Iranian relatives (in the presence of security agents), but allowed no access to a lawyer or to British consular officials. For several weeks she was also kept in solitary confinement and Nazanin’s husband says that when she came out of solitary earlier this month “she couldn't walk" and was “very weak”. Meanwhile, aside from the bloodcurdling talk of cyberplots and monstrous media entities, there still don’t seem to have been any recognisably criminal charges laid against her.

This is all distressingly familiar. The Iranian authorities treating a criminal suspect (especially one deemed “political”) with callous disregard for their welfare or basic human rights standards. It happens time and time again. To take just a few of the better-known cases - the volleyball protester Ghoncheh Ghavami, the artist-campaigner Atena Farghadani and the lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh were all variously held for long periods without charge (including in solitary confinement), suffered threats and beatings, and were then given ludicrous sentences on flimsy or non-existent evidence.

There’s no question that Nazanin’s predicament is extremely worrying. The fact that she’s a dual-national from a leading Western country almost automatically places her at risk. If the Iranian authorities habitually crack down hard on all critics, opposition figures, trade unionists, lawyers and journalists (and they most certainly do), they tend to treat dual-nationals as political pawns, virtual play things in a ruthless diplomatic game.

Other UK-Iranian joint-nationals like the 76-year-old grandfather Kamal Foroughi (seven years for “espionage”, plus another year for possessing alcohol) and Roya Nobakht, the middle-aged Stockport woman (20 years for crimes against national security) have seemingly already paid the price.

In another recent case, the Canadian-Iranian citizen Dr Homa Hoodfar, a 65-year-old anthropology professor, has been held - in secret and without a lawyer - by the Revolutionary Guards since 6 June as a “security prisoner”.

Among the things her interrogators have already asked her are: “Are you a feminist?” and “What is feminism?”. If we rule out the not-very-likely possibility that members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are trying to acquaint themselves with the latest in gender theory, then this looks like yet another attempt to dream up a far-fetched case against a dual-national.

To make matters worse, Hoodfar suffers from a rare neurological condition called myasthenia gravis, an auto-immune neuromuscular disease requiring special medication. Her family have been prevented from taking medicines to her in detention, a pointedly cruel and by no means unusual response by the Iranian authorities; Amnesty has a report on this subject coming out soon.

When news of the accusations against Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe came though recently, the phrase that caught the eye in many of the reports was that the Revolutionary Guard alleged that she’d participated in the “design and implementation of cyber and media projects to cause the soft toppling of the Islamic Republic”. Soft toppling. Rather like a chess piece casually knocked over.

Presumably it’s an imperfect translation - other accounts spoke of “peaceful overthrow”. But soft toppling is better because it conjures up the overall ludicrousness of the situation. Images of the mighty Iranian state with its stern Revolutionary Guards easily tipped over and overthrown by a British charity worker and her toddler daughter visiting relatives in Tehran. Who knew the Iranian state was so weak and vulnerable?

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
View latest posts