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Committee Corridor: State hostage-taking - can Parliament help?

21 July 2022

“You know, if someone else was taken tomorrow, would their experience be so different from ours?”

Richard Ratcliffe, long time campaigner for the release of his wife Nazanin from prison in Iran, reflects on whether the family’s case ‘moved the dial fundamentally’ for state hostages as he talks to Tom Tugendhat MP for the last episode of the current series of Committee Corridor, the podcast from select committees at the House of Commons.  

“We move from countrywide conflicts to emergencies that affect individuals,” says Tom Tugendhat. “Innocent, British citizens who are caught up in big power politics through no fault of their own. We are talking about wrongful detention or to put it bluntly, state hostage taking.” 

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released by Iranian authorities with another detainee, Anoosheh Ashoori, in March 2022 after six years of imprisonment. Throughout their detention, their families campaigned hard to keep their cases in the public eye and to keep the pressure on the Foreign Office to act on the ongoing plight of others, including Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof, who are still detained. 

This episode considers the family’s experience and the impact of Parliament on their case, both through the office of a local Member of Parliament and the work of a select committee. The family’s MP, Tulip Siddiq (Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn) and Royston Smith, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee since 2017 (Conservative MP for Southampton Itchen) are guest contributors.

Having decided to go public with their case not long after Nazanin was taken, Richard knocked on the door of his MP, Tulip Siddiq. Together, they unlocked the strength of cross-party support from current and past members of Parliament, including select committees. 

“Part of what Parliament does is it just notices injustice and gaps in government policy and it just calls them out. [It’s] really important as a victim of any policy area that, you know, people are noticing. It’s not just passing in the shadows,” he says. “Without a shadow of doubt, the support of Parliament was crucial to making sure that the debt was paid and then Nazanin was freed. There’s no doubt in my mind,” says Tulip.

The Foreign Affairs Committee is examining the approach of the Foreign Office for handling cases such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and the processes and approaches taken by the UK Government in securing the release of the hostages in Iran and other similar situations. 
Richard tells Tom that there is very little accountability for hostage taking.

“The bad guys in our case took a lot longer to get what they wanted than they were expecting, but in the end they got it, and calling them names isn’t really going to worry them too much. I think we do need to look at, at mechanisms that are proportionate, but that also with other international allies, hold them, the Iranians accountable and hold Russians and whoever else.” 
The desire to maintain cordial relations with other countries is good diplomatic instinct but should not limit government action, he believes. “There's a whole kind of accommodation of the abuse and a downplaying of the abuse. And I think that's something that I hope the Committee can continue to push the government, to scrutinize how reasonable is it to allow other countries to abuse our citizens.” 
With stage hostages still being held in Iran and by other countries, the podcast guests consider the options for action. Tulip Siddiq proposes a ‘network of allies’ to reinforce action: “If one person is taken from the West, all of us countries need to come down really hard on whichever country it is - Iran or whichever regime is taking hostages - to say, if you hit one of us, you’ve hit all of us.”
Royston Smith was recently part of a Foreign Affairs Committee visit to Washington DC. He suggests that UK could learn from the US model of a special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. “This is the one point of contact in the US when hostages are either taken or whether some people who have been detained are then changed status to hostage, rather than to someone who’s incarcerated for something else.” 

Richard believes there is still work to be done.  “Over time, the government was gradually more honest about our situation and probably more open in trying to resolve it or more open in acknowledging that it was negotiating and so on. I’m not sure whether we moved the dial fundamentally. You know, if some, if someone else was taken tomorrow, would their experience be so different from ours? I think we made ourselves politically, a big enough issue that, that we got solved, but the government is still very wary to protect people.” 

Committee Corridor takes a break during the House of Commons recess and returns in October with a different host and six new episodes on domestic issues including the cost of living and energy concerns. 

The podcast is available from usual podcast providers. A full transcript will be published on the episode page for Committee Corridor, on the UK Parliament website.  

Further information