The husband of jailed British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has appealed to UK officials to insist on attending her second trial when it begins in Tehran on Sunday.
The 42-year-old mother-of-one has been detained in Iran since 2016, when she was sentenced to five years in prison over allegations – which she denies – of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government.
Having been moved to house arrest in March, when thousands of prisoners were granted clemency and released from Iranian jails amid the Covid-19 outbreak, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was returned to court on Tuesday only months from her expected release date and told she would face a second trial.
Her husband Richard Ratcliffe said in a statement the trial would hear charges of spreading anti-government propaganda, in a case officials dropped in December 2017, after a visit from the then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, but reopened in May 2018.
Insisting his wife is being held as leverage against a UK debt owed to Iran, Mr Ratcliffe has urged British officials to do “everything to protect her and others” against Iran’s “hostage diplomacy”, starting with insisting they can attend her trial.
He said his wife’s detention – under house arrest at her parents’ home and fitted with an ankle tag – had been illegal since March, when Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei announced the release on clemency of several thousand prisoners who met certain criteria.
Coming officially to mark the Persian New Year, the mass pardons were also seen as a move to combat the spread of Covid-19.
“While we felt close to release these past few months, yesterday Nazanin was taken to the Revolutionary Court for a reopened second court case,” Mr Ratcliffe said.
“The case is illegal under Iranian law, as is the fact Nazanin was not already released back in March.
“It has become increasingly clear the past months that Nazanin is a hostage, held as leverage against a UK debt. It is important that the UK government does everything to protect her and others as Iran’s hostage diplomacy continues to escalate.
“This starts with the British Embassy insisting it is able to attend Nazanin’s trial on Sunday, and that the UK’s diplomatic protection is treated with respect.”
Mr Ratcliffe added: “Since the Supreme Leader made his announcement on 17 March, Nazanin has been formally entitled to clemency, and her ankle tag should have been removed.
“For almost six months she has been illegally held even under Iranian law.
“A few of those legally entitled to clemency had their confirmations held back since they were sensitive cases, though gradually all were allowed out on furlough.
“However in July 2020 all other prisoners who met the clemency criteria had their clemency approved. Nazanin’s is the only case for which the Supreme Leader’s Order has not been implemented, marking her out as a unique prisoner.”
The latest development concerning Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe sparked swift condemnation in Britain of Iran, including calls from Amnesty International for the UK Government to ensure a second trial does not take place.
Kate Allen, the organisation’s director, said: “Nazanin has already been convicted once after a deeply unfair trial, and there should be no question of her being put through that ordeal again.
“There have always been concerns that the Iranian authorities were playing cruel political games with Nazanin, and that looks to be the case here.
“As a matter of absolute urgency, the UK Government should make fresh representations on Nazanin’s behalf, seeking to have any suggestion of a second trial removed.”
A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesperson said: “Iran bringing new charges against Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is indefensible and unacceptable.
“We have been consistently clear that she must not be returned to prison.”
Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport while travelling to show her young daughter, Gabriella, to her parents in April 2016.
She was sentenced to five years in prison over allegations, which she denies, of plotting to overthrow the Tehran government.
She was later afforded diplomatic protection by the UK Government, which argues that she is innocent and that her treatment by Iran failed to meet obligations under international law.
It has been claimed Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe is being held in order to force the UK into settling a multi-million pound dispute with Iran.
The debt dates back to the 1970s when the then-shah of Iran paid the UK £400 million for 1,500 Chieftain tanks.
After he was toppled in 1979, Britain refused to deliver the tanks to the new Islamic Republic and kept the money, despite British courts accepting it should be repaid.
Mr Ratcliffe said the second case against his wife, originally brought soon before she had been eligible for parole, was based on an evidence file which “simply reused the material that had been used to convict her first time round”.
“Even the material marked as new had actually already been included in Nazanin’s first trial, relating to a reported picture of her having once attended a demonstration in front of the Iranian Embassy in London and having spoken to a BBC journalist there,” he said.
“Since she has been unfairly convicted of this once before, it would be illegal under Iran’s double jeopardy laws to convict her of it again.”
He added: “In previous court appearances the evidence and charges have sometimes changed by the time a full trial is begun. So we will know on Sunday more exactly what are the interrogators’ claims to justify running a second case with repeated ‘evidence’.”
Mr Ratcliffe also said his wife’s two previous lawyers had legal actions brought against them by Iranian authorities in part of a “deliberate policy of harassing those trying to ensure Iranian law is upheld in Nazanin’s case”.
He said she had on Tuesday proposed the name of a third lawyer to Judge Abolghassem Salavati, who will hear her case. As Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sent back home, the judge had then invited the lawyer to read the evidence file.
“This is a very quick turnaround for the lawyer to be able to prepare a reasonable defence,” Mr Ratcliffe said.
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