Britain must help citizens held unlawfully in foreign jails
This festive period, hundreds of thousands of British citizens will be travelling home to their families or going on holiday. You would expect such a trip to be uneventful: why would anything go wrong? For some British citizens however, what happened while they were abroad has turned their lives upside down in a way many of us couldn’t begin to comprehend.
Two prominent examples of this are Andy Tsege and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Both are British citizens, in Nazanin’s case a dual national, who were arrested by foreign authorities and imprisoned without access to a fair trial. Andy was kidnapped by Ethiopian agents in Sana’a international airport in Yemen, while Nazanin and her daughter, 2, were arrested while leaving Iran. The ordeals both have faced since is truly shocking and on top of the injustice of their detention, their daily lives have been subjected to gross human rights violations.
For Andy this will be the third Christmas he has spent alone behind bars. He is now in a prison notorious for being Ethiopia’s gulag. He has not been able to speak to his partner and children in London for two years and has had no private consular access from British officials, leaving him unable to describe freely the treatment he has received at the hands of his jailers.
Nazanin has been held mostly in solitary confinement for over nine months. Her husband, who has campaigned tirelessly in London for the UK government to call for her release, says she has been at breaking point. She is only allowed to see her daughter for one hour a week in prison. Her daughter remains trapped in Iran, unable to see her father.
Representatives for Andy and Nazanin have repeatedly raised serious concerns for their health.
The mistreatment of British citizens imprisoned abroad is unacceptable, in all cases, regardless of what crime has been committed. Yet in these cases, the truth is that it is clear that Nazanin and Andy are being held unlawfully. Attached to Andy’s name was a conviction and death sentence, after a trial in-absentia, which was condemned throughout the world. While Andy was previously prominent in Ethiopian politics, no country other than Ethiopia had found evidence, at the time of his kidnapping, that the political organisation which he was involved with had conspired to commit acts of terrorism. Nazanin was recently sentenced on charges which remain secret, despite her previous employment within Iran as an aid worker.
The simple fact is that if these British citizens are not going to be charged with an offence recognised internationally, they should be released immediately so they can spend Christmas at home, safe with their families, who all want more than anything to be reunited and have their lives return to normality.
So, what can be done to help Andy and Nazanin? While hundreds of thousands of people have supported petitions and campaigns, and advocacy groups such as Reprieve and Amnesty have put worked tirelessly in calling for their release, ultimately it is the UK government who have the most influence and leverage and should call openly and loudly for Iran and Ethiopia to free Nazanin and Andy respectively.
The weight of the prime minister calling for their release would be significant and would set a strong tone – the UK doesn’t stand by and let their citizens face appalling treatment, trapped in prisons, thousands of miles from their homes. We have seen the US and Canada, and the UK previously, secure the release of their citizens after publicly raising calls for the release of their nationals imprisoned unlawfully abroad, yet Theresa May and Boris Johnson appear reluctant to do the same.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office like to stress the work they do for the families of Nazanin and Andy, and say they repeatedly raise these cases with the respective governments. However, all that they appear to be doing is acquiescing to the dubious charges imposed on Andy and Nazanin by saying that the FCO won’t get involved in the legal system of another state, despite those legal systems being grossly and so obviously unfair.
Just one official public statement from the prime minister, unequivocally calling for Nazanin and Andy’s release, and the release of other British nationals imprisoned unlawfully abroad, would convince the public that our government will stand up for its citizens and send a strong and unequivocal message to those foreign governments.
My call to the prime minister and the government is this: give Andy and Nazanin’s families some seasonal comfort over the next week, pick up the phone, issue a statement and call for their release.
Tom Brake MP is the Liberal Democrat spokesman for foreign affairs