Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian woman sentenced to five years in jail in Iran for spying, has been temporarily released from prison for the first time in more than two years.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whose plight touched the nation and left a shadow hanging over Iran-UK relations, was given a three-day furlough on Thursday morning in a move that took her and her family by surprise.
She has since been reunited with her four-year-old daughter, Gabriella, who has been in the care of her Iranian family since she was 22-months-old.
“It will be just awesome for Gabriella to have mummy home finally,” Zaghari-Ratcliffe said, according to her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, who remains in the UK.
“We can play with her doll’s house, and she can show me her toys. The thought of brushing her hair, and giving her a bath. Of being able to take her to the park, and feed her, and sleep next to her – it just kills me. It is still so hard to believe.”
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was notified her furlough was about to begin in the early hours of Thursday while she was still in her nightclothes and told that she had 10 minutes to get ready and leave. After passing through the prison gates, she borrowed a mobile phone from a stranger to tell her brother she had been released.
Gabriella picked flowers from the garden and gave them to her mother when the two were reunited in the family home. For more than half her short life, all Gabriella’s time with her mother has been on prison visits.
“I wasn’t expecting it at all when it was mentioned two weeks ago. I didn’t tell Gabriella or for a long time my mum – so if it didn’t happen I would be the only one to suffer,” Zagahri-Ratcliffe said.
“My dad’s home is not my home – but it is so much better than prison.”
Zagahri-Ratcliffe’s release is limited to three days – the standard period in the Iranian penal system – but could be extended, as seen repeatedly in cases involving political prisoners.
Her ordeal is the most high-profile in a string of cases involving dual nationals held in Iran and received huge attention in the UK after her fate became intertwined with the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s political career when he made an erroneous statement that complicated her legal battle and was forced to make his first visit to Tehran.
Johnson’s successor, Jeremy Hunt, took to twitter to express delight about her temporary release, before expressing hoping it would lead to her permanent release and return to the UK.
The saga cast a shadow over bilateral relations between London and Tehran as both countries were trying to focus on an improvement in ties following the 2015 nuclear deal.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s temporary release was also the result of an extraordinary public campaign mounted by her husband that made her case a familiar one throughout the UK.
Richard Ratcliffe said Thursday’s news was a surprise. “We have been burned by hope before, so it had been easier to presume disappointment would come again. But it didn’t – she is outside those prison walls. And we are all so pleased.
“I want to thank Jeremy Hunt for all his efforts, and for the efforts of all of his staff and all the Iranian authorities involved. I have been very critical in the past – I may need to be critical again. But today is a good day.”
He said hoped that the furlough would lead to her ultimate release. “Furlough is not full freedom – we want her home, not just on holiday from prison – but it is still such a good step. I promised Nazanin I will keep campaigning until she is home in the UK, so we don’t get caught in some limbo of house arrest. But after 873 days it is a massive step. And we owe a thank you to everyone who has carried us this far.”
Iran’s ambassador to the the UK welcomed the news.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested in April 2016 by members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards as she and her daughter were about to board a flight back to the UK at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport following a visit to her family in Iran.
She was accused of attempting to orchestrate a “soft overthrow” of the Islamic Republic, spying and running “a BBC Persian online journalism course which was aimed at recruiting and training people to spread propaganda against Iran.”
Zaghari-Ratcliffe had worked for BBC Media Action, the corporation’s international development charity, between February 2009 and October 2010 before moving to Thomson Reuters Foundation, the news agency’s charitable arm, as a project manager.
Sentenced to five years in jail on charges relating to national security, her mental and physical condition became fragile as her husband revealed that she was losing her hair and experiencing “low and despairing” moods as her incarceration lasted far beyond her family’s expectation.
Iranian judicial authorities later reopened her case and tried her on additional charges based on claims of fresh evidence that appear to include a BBC pay stub and contents of her personal email.
Johnson became personally involved in the case after he mistakenly told a parliamentary committee she had been training journalists while in fact she was on holiday in Iran. He reluctantly apologised and met with Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband before travelling to Tehran to lobby for her release. Iran’s state TV, however, aired a series of programmes citing Johnson’s erroneous statement as “an inadvertent confession” that she was spying in Iran.
According to her family, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was told by judges in court her case was related to a sum of money the UK government owes to Tehran in connection with a four-decade dispute over hundreds of Chieftain tanks Iran bought from the UK in 1976.
The British government admits it owes Iran up to £400m, but the countries have wrangled over the precise sum and interest due. The Guardian reported this week that Iran was willing to receive the debt in the form of medicine, as the UK is worried the payback might violate existing sanctions.
Both governments deny the debt is linked to her imprisonment.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s employer, Monique Villa, Thomson Reuters Foundation CEO, said she hoped now for permanent release. “It fills my heart with joy to see pictures of her holding her daughter Gabriella, now four years old, in her arms.
“What’s missing in the picture is Nazanin’s husband, Richard Ratcliffe, whose courage and strength throughout has been inspirational. I can only hope they are reunited as soon as possible. “
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was born in Tehran in 1978 and moved to the UK in 2007, where she met her husband, an accountant. They married in Winchester in 2009, and five years later Gabriella was born in London.