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Kirstin Innes: Treatment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe for daring to criticise foreign secretaries has been appalling

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been reunited with her family and will now need to rebuild her life. Photo by Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been reunited with her family and will now need to rebuild her life. Photo by Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Imagine you travelled back to the country you’d been born in for a fortnight’s trip to visit your parents and introduce them to your baby daughter.

Imagine that, as you and the baby were getting on the plane back home to the country you are a citizen of, to your spouse, you were arrested on false pretences and thrown in prison, used as a pawn in a political chess game between two governments over a historic unsettled debt.

Imagine that imprisonment lasted for six years.

Imagine your release was mooted and denied several times.

Imagine the agony of knowing your baby is growing up without you there and that you are missing out on her childhood.

Imagine a prominent politician too lazy to read his own briefings makes a gaffe which gets years added to your already fraudulent sentence.

Then, finally, imagine that you are released. Not because of any effort made on your behalf by your government, but because the country you are a citizen of is sanctioning Russia and needs another source of oil, so finally pays back the historic debt.

Imagine you arrive back home to a strange tall eight-year-old who doesn’t really know you, to an exhausted husband, carrying all the trauma of the past six years within you.

Foul treatment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe on Twitter

Now imagine that the same government that spent so long prevaricating over your release – now headed up, incidentally, by the same politician responsible for prolonging your imprisonment – wants to take the credit for reuniting you with your family.

How do you feel? Grateful? No, me neither.

The way Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been treated in the wake of her release and subsequent press conference, in which she dared to criticise the five foreign secretaries of the past six years for not getting her out sooner, is absolutely foul. Within 24 hours of the conference on Monday, the hashtag #sendherback was trending on Twitter. The reason being that a traumatised woman had publicly expressed her legitimate anger at her entire life being needlessly laid waste to.

“I was told many, many times that, oh, we’re going to get you home,” Zaghari-Ratcliffe said, calmly and respectfully disagreeing with her husband, who had just thanked the foreign secretary for her efforts.

“That never happened. So there was a time that I felt like, you know what, I’m not going to trust you because I’ve been told many, many times that I’m going to be taken home… I mean, how many foreign secretaries does it take for someone to come out? Five. It should have been one.”

Nazanin showed dignity as she talked about rebuilding her life

And that was all she had to say on the matter. The rest of the interview, which had began with her thanking “everyone” who was involved in getting her home, was a dignified, articulate discussion about how exactly one goes about rebuilding a life shattered in this way, and a request for privacy as the Ratcliffe family “get to know each other again” (please just think about what that statement means for a second, won’t you?).

This government and all five of the foreign secretaries since 2016 – Philip Hammond, Boris Johnson of the wandering mouth, Jeremy Hunt, Dominic Raab and Liz Truss – should be apologising profusely and publicly to the Ratcliffe family, not trying to claim this as another victory for their “world-leading” governance.

At the time of writing this, only Hunt, no longer a government minister, has held his hand up and admitted some degree of fault. Alistair Burt, the former Foreign Office minister, has written an open letter to the foreign affairs select committee admitting that the government has known for most of the past six years that paying off Britain’s historic £400 million debt (not a ransom) to Iran would likely lead to Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release.

Tweet machine began to man the dog whistles

Truss herself, outside whose office Richard Ratcliffe went on public hunger strike earlier this winter after she did not respond to his attempts at contact, has been remarkably silent on the topic for a politician who never knowingly misses a photo-op.

However, the Tory Party Tweet machine had heard enough and began to man the dog whistles. Out came David C Bannerman, the former Conservative MEP, to suggest that Zaghari Ratcliffe was “biting the hand that feeds her”.

And lo, the gloves came off that hand. The spectacle of thousands of angry and often anonymous accounts massing under the hashtag #sendherback was absolutely shocking – the barely-concealed racism and misogyny in some of the comments is utterly chilling. How dare she – a woman of colour and an immigrant – criticise a single thing about our Great British Government, they all said, in subtext and bluster, flying Union Jack emojis from their usernames.

Six years ago, the United Kingdom was a different place. The Brexit vote had not happened; the openly racist and anti-immigrant discourse we now encounter as part of our daily political life was then still not properly part of the mainstream. I hope the Ratcliffe family are given the time, space, protection and privacy they need to adapt to this Brave New Britain, and I wish them all the love in the world.

Kirstin Innes is the author of the novels Scabby Queen and Fishnet, and co-author of the non-fiction book Brickwork: A Biography of the Arches

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