Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual Iranian-British citizen who worked for the media development team at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was detained in April 2016 at Tehran’s airport as she and her baby daughter were about to board a flight back to London, where she lives with her British husband. What started as a family visit to celebrate the Iranian New Year has turned into an ordeal of more than 20 months in an Iranian prison, with the end still not in sight. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for “participating in devising and carrying out media and cyber projects aimed at the soft overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” To make things worse, according to the UK-based human rights organization Amnesty International, she has been told she could be charged again and faces another trial at any point in time, which may result in an even longer sentence. Although this latest threat seems to have receded since Britain’s Foreign Minister Boris Johnson visited Tehran earlier this month.
It is not exactly a state secret that the regime in Tehran has an appalling track record on human rights, but the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe has captured international attention. This might be because of the cruel separation from her daughter Gabriella, who is now three years old, because of her occupation as a journalist, and also because she is a dual national. Yet her case highlights the lack of due legal process in Iran’s revolutionary courts. The charges against her lacked any specificity, hence there is no credibility to any actual alleged offense. Condemning someone to a long time in prison is, for the regime, a show of power that, although handled by the courts, has nothing to do with justice. They are arbitrarily using vague and flimsy accusations to convict defendants and put them behind bars for years. Courts in Iran are no more than a tool for intimidating those who are either critical of the Iranian government or who work for organizations that are seen as enemies of the state, such as the free media and NGOs.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe is not the only foreign journalist to be falsely arrested and convicted by this regime. A similar fate befell the Washington Post’s correspondent in Iran, Jason Rezaian, who in October 2015 was sentenced to an unspecified prison term that was not revealed even to him or his lawyer. Rezaian spent 18 months in one of the toughest jails in the country — which is controlled by the Revolutionary Guards — and was released last year only thanks to a prisoner swap between Iran and the US.
Another journalist with dual Iranian-American citizenship, Robin Shahini, was also visiting his family when he was arrested in July 2016 and charged with “acting against national security” and “participating in protest gatherings in 2009” as well as “collaborating with Voice of America (VOA) television.” However, since neither Shahini nor his lawyer were allowed to see the evidence against him, what value was there was in having a trial at all?
Journalist Zaghari-Ratcliffe is caught in the crossfire as hopes of human rights improvements under Rouhani and with help of nuclear deal have failed to materialize.
Iranian obsession with foreign and dual nationals is only part of the story of silencing whoever Tehran decides is a threat to the country. The 2009 presidential candidates, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and the academic and artist Zahra Rahnavard, Mousavi’s wife, have remained under house arrest for years. Despite President Rouhani’s promise to address this — made during the 2013 campaign and repeated in the course of this year’s elections — his administration has remained completely idle, doing absolutely nothing to remove these unjustified and harsh punishments inflicted without any legal process. The deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Motahari, who is trying to bring an end to this sad saga, claimed recently that: “One of the heads of power said placing people under house arrest is not a punishment. I told him he should spend 10 days indoors and under siege and see what happens.”
It is becoming increasingly obvious that Iran’s attitude to human rights will not improve under the Rouhani administration, and that the persecution of those who are perceived as a threat to the regime will continue in the most arbitrary manner. The hope that the nuclear deal would also be a catalyst for progressive domestic change has not materialized thus far, suggesting that the Revolutionary Guard and the conservative religious leaders still have the upper hand in both domestic and foreign affairs. Johnson’s recent visit to Tehran might have brought the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe from an Iranian prison closer, and hastened the day when she will be able to return to her family, but it has also emphasized the broader and troubling issue of gross violations of human rights throughout that country.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg