Following the most recent developments in Iran’s coronavirus crisis, there is growing concern that the Iranian-British dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe could be ordered to resume her unjust prison sentence at any moment. Those concerns are fueled by the fact that Tehran has already returned other furloughed political prisoners to their cells, while still others were never released despite the rapid spread of Covid-19 in the cramped and unsanitary conditions of the Iranian penal system.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced in 2016 to five years in prison. It was a recognizably harsh punishment for what were clearly fabricated charges. The charity coordinator and mother of one had been on a holiday visit to her parents at the time of her arrest, but was vaguely accused of using the trip to carry out unspecified activities on behalf of an “infiltration network” working toward the “soft overthrow” of the Iranian government. Her daughter, then two years old, was placed in the care of her Iranian grandparents, and remained there until last year, when she was finally reunited with her British father, Richard Ratcliffe.
With an entire continent now separating Zaghari-Ratcliffe from her daughter, the past several months have reportedly been defined by even greater psychological pressure. Her mid-March furlough was no doubt a much-welcome respite from the ordeal, allowing the 41-year-old to stay in her parents’ household, though affixed with an electronic monitoring device. But on the other hand, the change of venue presumably inspired a different kind of anxiety, since the terms of her furlough were never clarified.
An abrupt return to the cruel confines of Evin Prison was always a possibility. But now it seems to be looming heavily over the woman who has often been described as a hostage of the Iranian regime and a potential negotiating chip in talks with the United Kingdom. Her situation has rightly become a rallying point for activism by those who are concerned with Iran’s general human rights abuses, its treatment of political prisoners, and its relationship with the Western world.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s story is only part of a much larger phenomenon, and her brief furlough appears to be an outlier in Iran’s response to coronavirus and its impact on the prison system. She was apparently only considered eligible for temporary release on account of the fact that her sentence, though unjustifiably harsh, was still considerably shorter than that of numerous similarly-categorized prisoners.
It seems clear that in recent years, the favored sentence for Iranian-Western dual nationals is ten years in prison. That was the sentence given to Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi and his elderly father Baquer, as well as to a former cook for the US Marine Corps, Michael White, who was accused of “insulting the supreme leader” after traveling to Iran to visit a woman with whom he had become involved.
The elder Namazi was already on medical release from prison at the time of the coronavirus pandemic, but was still barred from leaving the Islamic Republic, which has been hit by a more severe outbreak than any other country of the region. Officially, Covid-19 has killed just over 6,000 Iranian citizens, but alternate source of information like the National Council of Resistance of Iran indicate that the true figure is fast approaching 40,000. The total number of infections has likely risen into the millions, putting elderly and vulnerable people like Baquer Namazi at constant, severe risk.
Many of those who remain incarcerated are in even greater risk, even those who are much younger than the octogenarian former UNICEF representative. For many, this was the case even before the coronavirus outbreak began, since the Iranian judiciary has a long history of withholding medical treatment from political prisoners, including those who are suffering life-threatening afflictions like cancer.
Neither the elderly nor persons with pre-existing conditions have been granted special consideration since the outbreak began in earnest, least of all those who were serving sentences of ten years or more. Conveniently, this benchmark aligns closely with the typical sentence given to political detainees, or “national security” prisoners in the regime’s terminology. Those types of prisoners were expressly barred from the first round of furloughs that the regime announced in response to mounting pressure from human rights activists both at home and abroad.
Even Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been branded in state media as a threat to national security. Her appearance in propaganda documentaries was just another part of Tehran’s elaborate strategy for stoking the anti-Western sentiment of hardliners while suggesting that the Islamic Republic is under constant threat from foreign enemies. But her unjust arrest underlined the fact that it is Western nationals in Iran who actually face a constant threat. And with Tehran now effectively ignoring the danger of Covid-19, the entire Iranian population shares a portion of that threat.
The worsening ordeal for political prisoners should be a source of profound convergence between the interests of the Iranian people and the Western world. To the extent that Zaghari-Ratcliffe is facing an imminent return to prison, it reflects Tehran abandoning any pretense of concern about the humanitarian or reputational impacts of rising infection rates and death totals. That same phenomenon is on display in the regime’s recent decision to return Iranians to their jobs while largely reopening society and brushing aside the inherent risk.
Recent anti-government uprisings suggest that very few of the Iranian people were actually taken in by the propaganda levied against people like Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the Namazis, and the dozens of others who have been falsely portrayed as “infiltrators” and Western spies. But even those who were sensitive to this propaganda should now be able to see that the plight of political prisoners could become their own plight in the near future.
Western governments should do whatever they can to move the less well-informed segments of Iran’s population toward this realization, even as they continue working for the release of their own citizens. All parties involved must understand that Tehran’s disregard for human rights is equally appalling no matter who is most affected by it at any given moment.