British couple end joint hunger strike over wife's detention in Iran

Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of detained Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, sits outside the Iranian Embassy in London.
Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of detained Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, sits outside the Iranian Embassy in London.PHOTO: PA WIRE/DPA

LONDON (NYTIMES) - They had been fasting together for more than two weeks: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman detained in Teheran, who went on a hunger strike in prison, and her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, who was outside the Iranian Embassy in London.

On Saturday (June 29) - the 15th day of their campaign - they suspended the strike demanding Zaghari-Ratcliffe's unconditional release.

Ratcliffe told BBC Radio's Today programme on Saturday that he had talked to his wife on the phone and that she had told him she would end the hunger strike.

"It was getting hard for me, but I'm sure it was much harder for her," Ratcliffe said. "I'm relieved because I wouldn't have wanted her to push it much longer."

While staying in a small tent outside the Iranian Embassy in central London, Ratcliffe was visited by journalists, passersby and more than 100 British lawmakers.

"I think in Iran we've become a much bigger story than we were before, and there's an awareness that really this needs to be solved."

Ratcliffe also received cards and letters from supporters addressed to "the pavement near to" and "the tent outside" the Iranian Embassy, according to The Times of London.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a programme director at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was detained in a Teheran airport in 2016 as she tried to return to Britain after visiting relatives with the couple's daughter, Gabriella.

She has been serving a five-year prison sentence for attempting to overthrow the Iranian government.

Her family and the foundation, a charity that is independent of Thomson Reuters and Reuters News, have strenuously denied the accusations.

Britain has tried repeatedly to intervene in her case, but she has remained behind bars.

This year, the foreign office offered Zaghari-Ratcliffe British diplomatic protection, raising her case to the level of a legal dispute between Britain and Iran, rather than a simple consular issue.

But Iranian diplomats have said they do not regard Zaghari-Ratcliffe as British.

A foreign office official travelled to Teheran this past week to make the case for maintaining the 2015 nuclear deal.

The official, Andrew Murrison, the minister of state for the Middle East and North Africa, said he had also pressed for the "urgent and unconditional release" of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and of all British-Iranian dual citizens who he said were "arbitrarily detained."

But Zaghari-Ratcliffe has remained behind bars despite British efforts to intervene in her case.

In 2017, Boris Johnson, who was foreign secretary at the time, was accused of making matters worse by erroneously saying in Parliament that she had been "simply teaching people journalism".

Iranian officials cited Johnson's words as evidence that she had engaged in "propaganda against the regime".

The Iranian Embassy in London protested Ratcliffe's presence throughout the strike, claiming that he and his supporters were blocking the entrance to the building and that the presence of television cameras violated the privacy of staff.

The ambassador lodged a complaint with the British Foreign Office, saying the hunger strike was in breach of Article 22 of the Vienna Convention protecting the running of diplomatic missions, The Times of London reported.

Iran's threat to surpass the limits on enriched uranium stockpiles permitted under the 2015 nuclear agreement has put more strain on relations with Britain in recent weeks. Britain is among European powers trying to uphold the deal that the Trump administration abandoned last year.

Despite those tensions, Ratcliffe has said he believed that his wife's case should be addressed immediately. He said the recent release of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese permanent resident of the United States who was jailed in Iran for four years, had given him hope.