It’s official: Nazanin Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian journalist, charity worker and free-speech activist who has been in jail in Iran for the past two months, was charged this week by the IRGC with “spying” and plotting the “soft overthrow” of the regime.
Her chances of a quick release are effectively zero as Nazanin is burdened with four damning circumstances:
- She is a journalist and happens to be in Iran during a massive crackdown on free speech.
- She is British and the UK is hated by Khamenei only a little less than he hates the US.
- She is imprisoned and to be tried in a country with a seriously flawed judicial system.
- She is being charged with crimes which are political in nature and literally undefendable.
If Jason Rezaian’s case is taken as a relevant case study (a dual-national journalist accused of spying), she will spend over a year in jail and will be freed not by an Iranian court but by diplomatic pressure. It’s time to place pressure on the regime to issue an immediate release or at least offer Nazanin a fair trial even if the chances of such an outcome are slim.
Being a journalist and a British citizen made her a target
Nazanin was arrested on the third of April at the airport in Tehran following a family visit back in Iran with her two-year old daughter, Gabriella. She was immediately transferred to solitary confinement in a prison in Kerman, 600 miles south of Tehran to be interrogated and then sent to the notorious Evin prison in Tehran. Her daughter was allowed to stay with her grandparents but both Nazanin and Gabriella were forced to relinquish their British passports.
But Nazanin isn’t only a dual citizen – she is also a journalist and an activist in the field of journalism. Working as a journalist in Iran is definitely like walking on a tight rope since any expression of direct criticism against the regime is tantamount to “spreading propaganda” and “insulting” the regime, the Supreme Leader, the President etc…Since 2009, over 600 journalists have been arrested in Iran. The situation has steadily worsened following the signing of the JCPoA which increased Khamenei’s fears of “foreign infiltration” and led to the known arrests of tens of journalists, artists, activists and models who dared to criticize the regime and its ideals by their words, art or actions. Since Iran doesn’t recognize dual nationalities, Nazanin, as with other dual nationals, cannot enjoy the official support of the newly re-opened British embassy and is being treated as any other Iranian. Communications with her family are limited and she has no known contact with a lawyer.
The accusations against her are, to say the least, dubious and echo the accusations against WaPo reporter America-Iranian journalist Jason Rezaian as well as a string of dual national citizens who were arrested by the IRGC following visits in Iran to visit their families – 13 known cases in just over a year, the latest one being Homa Hoodfar, a 65 year-old Canadian Iranian professor who flew to Iran only to be arrested by the IRGC. Her fate is yet unknown and she still hasn’t been charged.
Meanwhile, her daughter will not be able to leave Iran and her husband will be a fool to visit since he too can find himself in jail simply for being her husband. Gabriella “celebrated” her second birthday with her grandparents and a video-chat with her dad. Even her family residing in Iran has to be careful to not pressure too much the regime as there are numerous cases in which family members are imprisoned following visits or protests at the jail
Nazanin becomes a pawn on a global scale
Another problem in Nazanin’s case is that she is British and the sentiment of the regime towards the UK is ranked by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei right beside the “Great Satan”, the US – his exact words were that “evil Britain can’t be trusted“. Were Nazanin visiting from Italy, from Russia or from Venezuela, she would probably not be in jail right now. As such, she has become another pawn in the political agenda of the regime, a means to place pressure on the UK government. It is noteworthy that Hoodfar, the Canadian Iranian woman was arrested suspiciously close to the outcome of a court case in Canada which awarded victims of Iranian-supported terrorism $13 million in Iranian assets, an act which is hotly contested in Tehran.
Is Nazanin a spy and a counter-revolutionary? Well, according to the regime, anyone who criticizes the regime or calls for a change in the regimes Islamic Revolutionary ideals and laws is an enemy of the state and is liable to be executed. Since Nazanin is a program coordinator for journalism and media programs of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency, she is a prime suspect for the IRGC’s fears of “foreign infiltration”. The IRGC claims that Nazanin was arrested following a “massive intelligence operation” which “identified” her as one of the “main ring leaders in a network of hostile institutions that were operating in recent years under the supervision of foreign government’s spying and media services“.
But whether or not she is deemed as a spy by Western standards, the IRGC is using her to pressure President Hassan Rouhani’s agenda of “constructive engagement” with the world. As such, there is little hope that he will actually fight to free her from this political situation.
Destined to an unfair trial
Iran’s judicial process is inherently flawed in many ways in such a manner to minimize the chances of a fair trial especially in cases where the regime feels it is being attacked.
- Many crimes, such as “insulting Islamic sanctities”, “insulting the Prophet of Islam”, “enmity against God”, “corruption on earth”, “apostasy”, national security” and “spreading propaganda against the system” are legally undefendable and defendants, and their lawyers, do not have the right to be present at their trials.
- “Guilty until proven innocent” is a standard in Iran as suspects don’t have the right to an explanation of their arrest or of their rights, can be held in jail before trial for up to two years, can be denied of their rights to access a lawyer indefinitely and can be forced to choose a lawyer from a restricted list supplied by the investigator.
- Torture is actually legal if it is done “for the purpose of extracting confession or acquiring information” – torture can take the form of beatings, ill-treatment, humiliation and degradation before and after their trials and have no legal way to prosecute their torturers.
Based on Jason Rezaian’s tribulations, what can we expect to happen to Nazanin?
- She will spend many months in jail until her trial actually begins – Rezaian, for example, remained in jail for 9 months before being formally charged and he was freed only due to a prisoner swap after 18 months.
- She will have minimal contact with her family – Rezaian was frequently incommunicado and his contacts with his family was limited…Nazanin was at first unable to contact her family, then allowed to call them daily and then, once again, the contact was cut off.
- She will find herself with minimal or without any legal representation – Rezaian was, at first, denied legal counsel and then was allowed to meet his lawyer sporadically and there is no reason to believe that she will have a fair trial in any case.
- She will most probably be condemned to death – her crime, just as Rezaian’s is punishable by death and if, like Rezaian, her trial will be conducted by the “Hanging Judge”, Abolghassem Salavati, she can’t expect leniency.
Meanwhile, her family will miss her, petitions will be signed, foreign diplomats will try to free her, Iranian diplomats will express sympathy and nothing will happen unless a major diplomatic event occurs. Until then, anyone who values the basic freedoms of speech or who plans to visit Iran in the future should include Nazanin and the other unfortunate victims of the IRGC in their prayers and sign this petition.