British man joins wife on hunger strike, but he's in London and she's in an Iranian prison

A British man has gone on a hunger strike outside the Iranian Embassy in London to support his wife, who is on a hunger strike in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

'My job is to go on as long as she can,' says husband of woman imprisoned in 2016

Richard Ratcliffe has been camped outside London’s Iranian Embassy for a week, hoping to draw the attention of Iranian authorities over the imprisonment of his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, in Tehran. (Menaka Raman-Wilms/CBC)

In front of the Iranian Embassy near London's Hyde Park, Richard Ratcliffe sits next to an array of signs and colourful Post-it notes calling for his wife's freedom.

Both he and his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, have refused to eat since last Saturday — he in the English city and she in Tehran.

"We were trying to get noticed by the Iran authorities," Ratcliffe said, "and get them to acknowledge this is just crazy."

Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been detained in Iran since April 2016. She was convicted of spying and sentenced to serve five years in the notorious Evin prison.

It's a case that has gained a high profile in the United Kingdom as her family fights for her release. Her case has even found its way into discussions around the current leadership contest for the Conservative Party.

Now, almost a week into their hunger strike, Ratcliffe said that he has the sense his wife's case is getting noticed.

"Which is, emotionally, really positive," he said. "Physically, a hunger strike is quite tiring."

Ratcliffe holds a photo of his wife and their daughter, Gabriella. (Menaka Raman-Wilms/CBC)

Zaghari-Ratcliffe worked for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency, and was visiting family in Iran with her daughter in 2016. The British-Iranian was stopped at the airport when she tried to return home to the U.K. and was charged with plotting against the government.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe has denied the allegations. Her daughter, now five, is still in Iran with her grandparents.  

Ratcliffe has been set up on the sidewalk outside the Iranian Embassy since Saturday. A barricade behind him is plastered with signs calling on politicians to take action and notes of support from passersby.

People have brought flowers and bottles of water for Ratcliffe. A visitor's book is being passed around.

Ratcliffe has been sleeping in a nearby tent. "Or not sleeping," he said, forcing a smile.

Notes from supporters and messages to politicians line the barricade outside the embassy. (Menaka Raman-Wilms/CBC)

The embassy had originally called the police, he said, but the demonstration was deemed legal.

Then people he presumed were from the embassy came out to spray-wash and sand the fence railings next to them, he said.

The Iranian ambassador to the U.K. has said that Ratcliffe's demonstration has disrupted the regular work of the embassy, according to a report in The Guardian.

The Iranian government is also embroiled in rising tensions with the U.S. after Iran shot down an American drone on Thursday.   

Public support

Ratcliffe said there have been hundreds of people coming by each day since the strike began.

"It's a really powerful experience of just how nurturing most people are," he said.

It's just more than ridiculous.- Celia Dobbie

Among the constant stream of supporters who came to see Ratcliffe on Thursday was Lisa Luger, who lives in Ratcliffe's London neighbourhood.

"We want to support him and give him the strength, the moral strength, which he obviously needs to hold out here," she said.

"We do whatever we can to show that he's not alone. It must be a very, very lonely place where he is at the moment."

Another supporter, Celia Dobbie, knows the family because her husband used to work with Zaghari-Ratcliffe. She hopes the attention puts pressure on Iran to free her.

"The governments really need to get together and find a way to end it," she said. "It's just more than ridiculous."

3rd hunger strike

Zaghari-Ratcliffe has already been on two hunger strikes during her time in prison.

The first went for six days when she was in solitary confinement, according to Ratcliffe. The second was three days in January, when she was denied medical treatment.

"She's just desperate," Ratcliffe said. "She just wants to make the point that they have to stop messing around."  

Flowers from supporters sit on the sidewalk outside the Iranian Embassy. (Menaka Raman-Wilms/CBC)

This time, he decided to join his wife to try to garner greater attention. "She was saying that doing it with me makes her feel stronger," Ratcliffe said, "because we're going through it together."

They will strike until at least Saturday, when they have their next scheduled phone call. Ratcliffe said he'll find out then if she's ready to continue.

"She's not in great physical shape," he said. "My job is to go as long as she can."

Political pressure

Zaghari-Ratcliffe's case has also become an issue in British domestic politics involving the final two contenders for the Tory leadership race.

When Johnson was U.K. foreign secretary in 2017, he said Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran teaching journalism, comments that were widely reported to have been used against her in a court hearing.

During a leadership debate this week, Johnson said that his comments "didn't, I think, make any difference."

Ratcliffe has been vocal about his feelings toward the front-runner.

This is an international issue.- Richard Ratcliffe

"I was angry with Boris Johnson for failing to take responsibility for his mistake, because it felt complacent," he said. "I do think it's important that whoever's in charge takes responsibility."

Ratcliffe said he's been in personal contact with both Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, the current U.K. foreign secretary and other contender left in the Conservative leadership campaign. One of them will become the country's next prime minister.

"We have a reasonably trusting relationship with Jeremy Hunt," Ratcliffe said.

But, he said, it's up to the Conservative Party to choose its leader. "My job will be to lobby whoever becomes it."

Thanks to Canada

Zaghari-Ratcliffe's name also surfaced in a report released by a parliamentary committee in Canada this week.

Ratcliffe said he wanted to "say thanks to the committee and the Parliament."

On Wednesday, the foreign affairs and international development committee released a report on the human rights situation in Iran. In the report, the committee "expresses its solidarity with, and concern for, the health and well-being of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe."

"This is an international issue," Ratcliffe said, "about that wider point of foreign nationals being held, unfairly imprisoned, in Iran and other countries.

"I think it's great that the committee, that [the] Canadian Parliament, is taking the lead."

About the Author

Menaka Raman-Wilms writes about the environment, politics and social issues. She's also a 2020 CBC Joan Donaldson scholar.