Richard Ratcliffe on hunger strike: ‘There’s no plan to get Nazanin out’

Richard Ratcliffe no longer feels hunger pangs, as long as nobody mentions food. Even so, his inanition has left him feeling increasingly weak, dulling his mind and senses as he begins to retreat into himself to focus on the task of survival.

It is the 13th day of his hunger strike on Friday, sleeping in near-freezing temperatures in a pop-up tent pitched opposite the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), fortified by his clear sense of purpose. He needs the government to understand that “this is not a stunt”, but rather “a warning shot”.

He will continue until there is acknowledgment that ministers need to act fast to spare his wife, the British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, from another year in a Tehran prison after completing a five-year sentence on the spying charges she has always denied. The pair’s daughter Gabriella, seven, is being cared for at the family home by Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s brother.

The question of when to stop is difficult. He knows that after 25 days he will cause his body permanent damage. He is sleeping 10 hours a night, struggling to recuperate from a lack of sustenance.

The last time he went on hunger strike, outside the Iranian embassy in 2019, he managed 15 days, which is the estimated threshold for making a subsequent full recovery. That was in June, and he was joined by 100 sympathisers, creating what he describes as “almost a carnival feel”. This time it is November, he is flanked each night by only two family members or friends – and yet he is determined to go on for longer.

“It’s more visceral this time around. It’s smaller, darker, more pointed. I’m saying things I wouldn’t have said two years ago,” he told the Guardian.

His extreme action is prompted by his disillusionment with the government’s handling of his wife’s case, and the “real drift” he has observed since Boris Johnson became prime minister. “The policy is one of managed waiting, waiting for Iran to do the right thing, for a diplomatic solution. There is no strategy to get Naz home, which I said very bluntly to [the foreign secretary] Liz Truss last week. That’s why I’m camping on the street, because after five and a half years that’s really clear.”

He is especially frustrated that Iran’s vice-president is being “wined and dined” by ministers at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow. “I promised the Foreign Office […] I would find a way to rain on that parade. It’s the complicity, pretending the world can just go on as normal.”

Ratcliffe’s greatest frustration is the government’s reluctance to acknowledge an obvious solution to Nazanin’s plight: paying the £400m debt owed from a tank order made by the Iranian government, which the UK admits it never delivered after the revolution in 1979 ushered in a new theocratic regime.

“It’s perfectly clear that Nazanin isn’t coming home until they pay that debt. That’s a matter of conscience at a certain point, not politics or law,” he said.

Ratcliffe has sensed in recent months that his case is no longer prioritised by the FCDO. Where once it was “considered a prime-ministerial matter”, he is now fobbed off with meetings with junior ministers. He was given a slot with Truss thanks to the hunger strike, but left feeling “deflated and dumbfounded” by the lack of direction.

He believes Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case has been folded in with a number of other geopolitical issues, including a nuclear deal with Iran brokered by the US, and is being used as “leverage to curry favour” ahead of a US-UK trade deal.

Placards propped around the campsite outline key demands for the government. One reads: “Choose to keep your promise, choose to pay your debts, choose to free your citizens or continue choosing to avoid responsibility.” Another urges the UK government to “punish the perpetrators” and to “commit to end state hostage-taking” in the Iran nuclear deal negotiations.

Yet the atmosphere around the small encampment is cheering. The tents are festooned with fairy lights and surrounded by lit pumpkins carved by schoolchildren, along with the remnants of daytime crafting sessions. These include painted stones (intended to echo Boris Johnson’s erstwhile pledge to “leave no stone unturned”), pennants scrawled with messages of support and a patchwork quilt woven by Amnesty International supporters.

Ratcliffe, an accountant by trade, is praised for his dedication and resolve throughout the day by a steady stream of well-wishers, including MPs, FCDO employees visiting in a personal capacity, and celebrities including Bill Bailey, Claudia Winkleman, Shappi Khorsandi and Victoria Coren Mitchell.

He spends most of his time talking to people and doing media work to raise the profile of the case. He is supported by a small army of dedicated volunteers, marshalled by his sister, Rebecca, a GP who gives him health advice. There is a sense of community around the cause – one volunteer who hands out homemade badges describes herself as a “groupie”. Others bring deliveries of tea (no milk or sugar), electrolytes and hot-water bottles.

He is working closely with the families of other British-Iranian detainees in Iran, notably the children of Anoosheh Ashoori, who join him some nights. “There’s strength in numbers,” said daughter Elika Ashoori. “For those of us who can speak up it’s very important we put pressure on the government otherwise Iran will continue to hold hostages and more families will be affected.”

Ratcliffe said that, while his wife is broadly supportive, she is “worried about her husband’s hare-brained scheme”, and is all too aware of the dangers of hunger striking after turning yellow when her liver began to fail. She also worries about how Gabriella will fare. Ratcliffe said their daughter “remembers we did one before and it ended up happily” – though he is apprehensive about how she will feel in future visits when she finds her father weaker still.

An FCDO spokesperson said: “Iran’s decision to proceed with these baseless charges against Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is an appalling continuation of the cruel ordeal she is going through. Instead of threatening to return Nazanin to prison Iran must release her permanently so she can return home. We are doing all we can to help Nazanin get home to her young daughter and family and we will continue to press Iran on this point.”

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