The UK made a rare legal decision to grant diplomatic protection to a British woman stuck in Iranian jail — but it might not get her out

  • Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual citizen, has been imprisoned in Tehran for the past three years on espionage charges that she, the UK, and her employer all deny.
  • The British government has been petitioning for her release for years, but have not made significant headway.
  • During her time in prison she has found lumps in her breast and been in a fragile mental state, but prison authorities have refused to let her seek medical attention.
  • Britain invoked a rare legal mechanism on Thursday and granted her diplomatic protection, allowing it to discuss Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case in international forums or challenge it in court.
  • But it doesn’t mean Iran will release her. Iranian authorities have also appeared to dismiss the UK government’s move.

The British government took a rare legal step and granted diplomatic protection to a British-Iranian woman who it says is unfairly imprisoned in a Tehran jail – but it still might not get her out.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager at the Thomson Reuters Foundation charity, has been imprisoned in Tehran since April 2016 on espionage charges that she, the British government, and her employer all deny.

She was sentenced to five years in jail shortly after her arrest at a Tehran airport in April 2016 while heading back home to London with her daughter, Gabriella, after visiting her parents.

Gabriella, who was less than two years old at the time, had her passport taken away at the time and remains in Tehran with her grandparents.

An Iranian court has convicted her of spying, training journalists, and plotting to overthrow Iran’s clerical establishment. She and her family have repeatedly insisted that she was simply on holiday in Iran.

Nazanin gabriella zaghari ratcliffeChris J Ratcliffe/GettyGabriella Zaghari-Ratcliffe on video call with her father, Richard Ratcliffe, who was holding a fourth-birthday vigil for her in London in June 2018.

Nazanin’s plight

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who regularly speaks to her husband Richard on the phone from Tehran’s Evin Prison, says she has suffered mentally and physically, but has been given insufficient medical attention.

In January she underwent a three-day hunger strike after prison authorities refused to let her see a doctor to examine lumps in her breast, her husband Richard Ratcliffe said, according to the BBC. She has also reportedly suffered from neck pains and numbness in her limbs.

She is also in a “pretty fragile” state of mental health, but denied access to an outside psychiatrist, the BBC quoted Ratcliffe as saying.

What does diplomatic protection do?

The British government has been fighting for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release alongside her husband for the past three years, but has not made significant headway because Iran doesn’t recognise her dual citizenship.

On Thursday, the UK elevated its dispute with Iran by granting her diplomatic protection.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s new diplomatic protection – a rarely-used international legal mechanism – essentially raises her case from a consular to a diplomatic level, meaning the UK can now openly discuss her predicament and rally support from other countries in international forums, such as the United Nations.

It also means that the UK could request inquiries, demand negotiations, and sue for compensation for her case at the International Court of Justice, though British diplomats will unlikely go down this route because it might end up in a long backlog of cases, the BBC reported.

Nazanin zaghari ratcliffe rallyChris J Ratcliffe/GettyA photo of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Gabriella during a vigil in London in June 2018.

Jeremy Hunt, the British foreign secretary, told the BBC’s “Today” radio program that the UK had not granted diplomatic protection to any individual for more than 100 years.

He said in a statement Thursday: “This represents formal recognition by the British Government that her treatment fails to meet Iran’s obligations under international law and elevates it to a formal state-to-state issue.”

“My decision is an important diplomatic step which signals to Tehran that it’s behaviour is totally wrong,” he said, citing Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s lack of access to medical treatment in jail.

Hunt added, however: “It is unlikely to be a magic wand that leads to an overnight result but it demonstrates to the whole world that Nazanin is innocent and the UK will not stand by when one of its citizens is treated so unjustly.

Will Iran budge?

Diplomatic protection, however, cannot force Iran to release Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Iran’s ambassador to the UK also appeared to dismiss the Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s new diplomatic status, citing his country’s refusal to recognise dual citizenships.

“UK Govt’s extension of diplomatic protection to Ms Zaghari contravenes [sic] int’l law,” Hamid Baeidinejad tweeted. “Govts may only exercise such protection for own nationals.”

“As UK Govt is acutely aware, Iran does not recognise dual nationality. Irrespective of UK residency, Ms Zaghari thus remains Iranian,” he said.

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