A Labour MP has been warned by parliamentary clerks not to make reference in parliament of the UK government’s £400m debt to Iran for fear of prejudicing court proceedings, the MP representing Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her husband has been told by the parliamentary clerks.
Tulip Siddiq, Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, has a debate scheduled for Westminster Hall in parliament on Tuesday concerning the continued detention of her constituent Zaghari-Ratcliffe. It is widely assumed that the UK’s non-payment of the debt has contributed to her continued detention in Tehran for five and a half years.
Siddiq was shocked to be told for the first time that the issue of the government debt was sub judice. She has raised the issue numerous times before in the Commons and never been given this restriction on what she is entitled to say in a case that has been deferred numerous times.
The high court is due to hear whether a former UK government arms trading subsidiary, International Military Services (IMS), is required to pay a £400m debt to the Iranian ministry of defence (Modsaf) as ordered previously by an international arbitration tribunal. No date has been set for a fresh hearing. British ministers in letters to the lawyers of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe have acknowledged that the debt is owed.
The clerks wrote to Siddiq saying: “We are aware that there are legal proceedings between Modsaf and IMS Ltd and have ascertained that the case is still before the high court. Under the House’s sub judice resolution (the purpose of which, as you may know, is to avoid any risk of prejudice to matters that are before the courts), civil proceedings are active and sub judice from the point at hearing date has been set down, until judgment or discontinuance. This means that they should not be referenced in questions, motions or debates.”
The clerks said she was entitled to discuss only whether interest was payable on the debt since that issue had been settled in court. The clerks added: “Please note that the separate appeal by Modsaf for entitlement to interest is not sub judice (having been rejected by the supreme court in November 2020) and therefore may be raised.”
The clerks then demanded to know what she intended to say. “Please could you confirm whether you are planning to reference the above case in your debate? If you are planning to do so, please let us know as soon as possible so we can provide further advice.”
A copy of the clerks’ note was given to the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Richard Ratcliffe, who said: “I find it staggering that even now the government is trying to block debate in parliament about its debt to Iran, and is still hiding behind the fig leaf of a moribund court case that hasn’t happened for two years, which ministers told parliament is now settled. The preference of this government to hide its policies and choices from scrutiny, and to leave innocent people to suffer their consequences, remains remarkable, and ominous.
“It is time the government starting explaining itself, and stopped hiding away: why do Nazanin’s and the others lives matter so little that they can be left hostage for years over the government’s debt? Why is parliament not allowed to ask the government to explain? What really is the blockage here?”
Ratcliffe was speaking from hospital where he is being treated after 21 days on hunger strike in a bid to secure his wife’s release. He ended his hunger on Saturday. He said he had no doubt that the government was behind the warning letter from the clerks.
Siddiq was likely to raise why the debt had not been paid and ask whether US sanctions were a problem for UK banks and what efforts had been to ensure the debt was paid by other means such as humanitarian aid. Conversations were under way to see if she could be given a waiver to discuss the debt.
The clerks’ letter came despite peers discussing the debt for more than a half an hour on Monday.
The Foreign Office minister, Lord Goldsmith, drew gasps when he told peers payment of the £400m debt owed by the UK to Iran would undoubtedly be seen as payment for a hostage, something that would not be in the government’s short- or long-term interest.
Goldsmith also repeatedly said the undisputed UK debt was owed to pre-revolutionary Iran, leaving it open that the government did not believe the debt was owed to the current regime.
Goldsmith was confronted by senior legal figures who challenged him to accept that the payment of the debt was not to pay a ransom, but to pay a debt that the UK government had been ordered to pay by an international court of arbitration.
He was in greatest difficulty when the former lord chief justice Lord Judge asked: “Do we owe money to Iran? If we do, why is it not being paid?”
Goldsmith said the UK was continuing to explore options to resolve the case.