Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's Kafkaesque ordeal will need a diplomatic fix

Come Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe heard a second set of charges against her in a Tehran court on Sunday, a week after her five-year sentence ended, the parallel between her treatment and that of Josef K, the defendant in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, is no cliche.

Josef K often went to a court on a Sunday not sure of the charges against him, only to discover “actual acquittal” was unobtainable. There were only two possible outcomes – “apparent acquittal and prolongation”. “With apparent acquittal”, Kafka wrote, “a charge still hovers over you and can be instantly reactivated as soon as the order comes from above”.

In Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case, she had hoped last week she had finally reached the “actual acquittal” stage, but instead she discovered a second set of charges. It is unclear how the court will judge these charges or whether Iran will opt for prolongation, leaving her unable to return her family in London.

Either way, to western eyes, it will be diplomatic and political events outside the courtroom that will settle her fate.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe is only one high-profile example of what has come to be known as hostage diplomacy, the state capture of individuals used as bargaining chips with the captive’s government.

On one count, there are as many as 30 dual nationals, mainly Europeans and Americans, in Iran’s jails. At least four are British-Iranians. It is a practice that has spread to China, Cuba and arguably through the Middle East. Iran, ovviamente, also feels its citizens are being detained unfairly.

Sarah Moriarty, the daughter of the former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who was captured by Iran in March 2007 and is presumed dead, recently described the nightmare families navigate. Lei disse: “Basically we tried everything possible to get him home. My family had no playbook. We were starting from square one about who to speak to and to try to get answers from.”

But over the last 15 years state hostage families have learned more about the growing phenomenon and how best to press their governments into a more proactive response. The families share their remarkably similar experiences, publicise one another’s campaigns, assuming the quiet diplomacy route has been rejected, and generally join the dots. La settimana scorsa, they launched Hostage Aid Worldwide – a bid to create a global database of those taken hostage, provide risk assessments and demand more systematic help from governments.

Governments are also slowly waking up. The US has passed the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery Act, and has a special envoy for hostage affairs. The act sets criteria for determining who is being detained, and for sanctions against the jailers. A month ago the Canadian government held a conference to launch a declaration against state hostage-taking that has the support of 50 Paesi. Jim O’Brien, the first US special envoy for hostage affairs said “the great value of the Canada declaration has been to name the problem”.

But Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer once described as “the extractor” for his ability to free political prisoners, highlights the limits of the Canadian declaration. “The problem with the statement is that it deplores hostage-taking, but has no action items, and the key countries involved in hostage-taking are not going to sign up. It’s not a tool or an instrument that is going to change outcomes.”

He backs a zero tolerance policy so governments that undertake the practice “face dramatic and severe consequences”.

Jason Poblete, the lawyer that helped free the Lebanese businessman Nizar Zakka after four years in an Iranian jail, also argues governments should put hostage-taking top of the agenda, and simply say “until you release all hostages, we are not going to talk to you about nuclear proliferation. These are crimes against humanity.” From the Iranian perspective, Iranians being held abroad are either victims of illegal sanctions or national security agents.

Xiyue Wang, a Chinese American historian jailed for three years and released in 2019 in a prisoner swap, says hostage-taking is a pillar of the Iranian state. He argues the survival of Iranian regime rests on maintaining a level of managed hostility with the west, and dual nationals personify nofuz, the infiltration of western values, something that must be resisted.

He says “the real problem is that hostage-taking currently works”.

Empirically he is right. The British-Australian academic Kylie Moore Gilbert was released after two years, on the same day three jailed Iranians were dispatched to Tehran from Thailand. The Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian was released when some Iranians arrested by the US for sanctions-busting were freed, and $1.7bn (£1.2bn) owed by the US to Iran from a broken arms deal started to be released in cash. Iran’s critics say once one hostage is successfully “taken to market”, the Iranian intelligence services replenish their stocks by picking up someone else.

Others take a less purist approach to negotiations, and say the ends – the release of an innocent national – justify the grubby back-channels. Rezaian for instance says he would love to get to a stage where no country will talk to a state hostage taker, but admits “we are not at that stage yet. This is going to continue to be a problem until the Iran regime has a feeling that it might not be worth them doing this any more and currently we have not figured out a formula.”

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