Calls for British Foreign Minister to quit after comments jeopardise case of woman jailed in Teheran

Britain's Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson delivers his speech on the third day of Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, Britain, on Oct 3, 2017.
Britain's Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson delivers his speech on the third day of Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, Britain, on Oct 3, 2017.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON (AFP) - British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called his Iranian counterpart on Tuesday (Nov 7) in a bid to clarify remarks which left him accused of jeopardising the case of a British-Iranian woman jailed in Teheran.

Mr Johnson faced calls to quit after telling a parliamentary committee last week that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was training journalists in Iran when she was arrested for alleged sedition last year - a comment her employer and her family insisted he correct.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 38, appeared in court on Saturday to face further charges, first brought in early October, that carry a 16-year jail term.

The Iranian judiciary issued an online article on Sunday saying Mr Johnson's comments proved that she was not on holiday, as her family said, backing the justification for new charges.

In the call with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Mr Johnson said the suggestion that his remarks "shed new light" on the case was "absolutely not true" as it was clear she had been on holiday, a Foreign Office spokesman said.

Mr Johnson had been seeking to make the point that "he condemned the Iranian view that training journalists was a crime, not that he believed Iranian allegations that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been engaged in such activity", the spokesman said.

Mr Johnson said his remarks "could form no justifiable basis for further action in this case" and called for her release on humanitarian grounds.

Mr Johnson said he planned to visit Iran before the end of the year to discuss the case further.

Mr Zarif said the weekend developments were not related to Mr Johnson's remarks and he remained committed to working together to resolve the case on humanitarian grounds, the Foreign Office spokesman said.

Mr Johnson did not apologise, but he accepts his remarks "could have been clearer", the spokesman added.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe's husband Richard Ratcliffe said that Mr Johnson "made a factual error".

He said Saturday's court appearance had left his wife "very stressed and upset".

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager for the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF), the media organisation's philanthropic arm, was arrested at Teheran airport on April 3 last year after visiting family.

Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards accused her of having taken part in the "sedition movement" of protests that followed the disputed 2009 re-election of then hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe denies the charges.

She is serving a five-year jail sentence in Teheran but last month was presented with extra charges carrying a possible 16-year prison term, her employers said.

TRF said those charges were that she had joined organisations specifically working to overthrow the regime, referring to her media charity work in London, and that she once attended a demonstration outside the Iranian embassy in Britain's capital.

TRF chief executive Monique Villa welcomed Mr Johnson's clarification.

"Nazanin has never trained journalists in Iran," she said.

"It's time now for the foreign secretary to meet Nazanin in jail, as he proposed last week, and to bring her back home."

Ms Emily Thornberry, foreign affairs spokeswoman for the main opposition Labour Party, had written to Mr Johnson urging him to quit if his actions had damaged Zaghari-Ratcliffe's prospects of freedom.

Prime Minister Theresa May's spokeswoman said the premier still had "full confidence" in Mr Johnson.

"The foreign secretary is doing a good job and working hard to represent Britain's interests abroad," she said.