This week Aras Amiri from north London was convicted and sentenced in Iran to 10 years in prison for organising Iranian cultural events in the UK for the British Council.
It brought back memories of the sentencing of my wife Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe on similar charges in 2016 – and the tearful weeks failing to make sense of it all. Aras’s case has many similarities to Nazanin’s: both arrested when on holiday visiting family, both targeted for their links to the UK, both had their jobs in London turned into cynical espionage claims.
Today they are cellmates in Evin prison. They often share a cup of tea, and talk about their lives in London, now so far away. Two weeks ago, Aras’s family had been told the verdict was being delayed, awaiting other considerations. We had shared their hope that she was not another political chess piece.
Then came Monday’s sentence – not told to a lawyer, but announced on TV: 10 years in prison. Iran’s revolutionary court convictions of foreigners are never about justice. They are advertising an imprisonment.
For my family, the announcement was also ominous.
There had been mixed signals with Nazanin’s case over the past two months – with a health commission proceeding in the background conducting tests that might lead to her medical release. Nazanin recently saw a psychiatrist – who was so shocked at her state, she recommended instant hospitalisation. There were hopes for Ramadan. Even a Persian lion from Bristol zoo had been sent to live in Tehran zoo, much to Gabriella’s excitement.
So this week’s renewed hostility from Iran came as a shock. Our family were told all those tests needed to be repeated, the hospitalisation was blocked. The judiciary again announced the opening of Nazanin’s second court case. What happened to provoke the change?
Nazanin and Aras are among many foreign and dual nationals and some permanent residents held on arbitrary cases by Iran. There are more than 30 known cases of foreign and dual national political prisoners from North America and Europe unfairly held in Iran since 2014 – most with outside links as academics or charity workers, working on the environment or culture, all framed with opaque “national security” cases.
The cases have many common patterns: secret trials and refusal and threats to lawyers; the use of solitary confinement especially during interrogations; the prevention of outside consular access; the denial of medical treatment as a tool of pressure; the broadcast of smears on state TV; the raids and surveillance on the family home particularly if the families start campaigning.
These cases should not be seen simply as random and unconnected cases, but part of a new wave of hostage diplomacy. This is accelerating in Iran – though it is not unique. There is an increasing tendency of other states to arrest each others’ citizens to get their way in diplomatic spats.
With Iran, the UK has not been successful at challenging this practice, nor at addressing Iran’s underlying claims. Three years of quiet diplomacy has failed to deliver. But so too has the broad bellicose approach of others. For all the drumbeats and tweets, what has Donald Trump achieved for the US hostages in Iran? For all our energy deals, what has the UK achieved for ours?
What is needed is coordinated action. The plight of Nazanin over three years has taught me that systematic abuses are rarely solved by euphemism, but shared values and accountability. Two months ago Jeremy Hunt granted Nazanin diplomatic protection. This week shows it is now time to act.
Next month the US president comes on a state visit to the UK. We will be asking Hunt to lead international coordination with like-minded states, at the UN security council and elsewhere, to reaffirm that we do not solve our problems by holding each others’ citizens hostage – there should be accountability for those who do.
This erosion of previous norms against state-sponsored hostage taking creates more than a protection gap for individual citizens. It risks allowing a new middle ages of international law.
It is important to increase the cost – for Iran and others – of holding innocent people as leverage. We need this before more people are quietly taken.
Source » theguardian