‘Liz Truss meeting was a car crash’: Inside the legal battle to free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

“Liz Truss… my meeting with her when we were on hunger strike was a car crash.”

Seated at the front of a crowded auditorium, at the top of a glossy law firm building, near Holborn Viaduct, are Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her eight-year-old daughter, Gabriella.

And just a few feet away, sitting on stage alongside a handful of the couple’s lawyers, legal aides and campaigners, is her - beaming - husband, Richard Ratcliffe.

It’s a world away from the 3,401 mile distance that separated them for six long years.

Nazanin, a dual citizen, was arrested at Tehran airport in April 2016, while returning to the UK, and sentenced to five years in prison, after being convicted of plotting to topple the government - which she has always denied.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Richard Ratcliffe at the The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power premiere. Photo: Getty

After temporary release in Iran during the pandemic, she faced more charges - before finally being released in March 2022, alongside fellow British-Iranian prisoner Anoosheh Ashoori.

Organised by the Human Rights Lawyers Association (HRLA), the event, ‘Torture, Tanks and Liz Truss’ is aimed at lifting the lid on what - until now - was a largely secretive campaign to secure the release of perhaps the highest profile individual held as a British-Iranian detainee.

It comes amid scenes of astonishing bravery in Iran, as women burn their hijabs in the street and shout ‘death to the dictator’ - after outrage over the shock death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police after being accused of failing to fully cover her hair.

And it’s a formidable team.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe (L), her daughter Gabriella (R) and her husband Richard Ratcliffe at 10 Downing Street. Photo: Getty

From Dr Tatyana Eatwell, a barrister who became involved in the case after meeting Richard over dinner at the house of a woman she knew through her children’s nursery.

“She knew I practised human rights law and was a friend of Richard’s,” she said.

“Over dinner, spaghetti bolognese, we hatched this… we had a conversation about how things [the campaign] were going, the United Nations (UN) working groups.”

Fortunately, another international lawyer in Dr Eatwell’s Doughty Street chambers, Professor John Dugard - a former UN special rapporteur - had actually written the draft articles on diplomatic protection - which later became a key piece of the puzzle when then-foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt afforded it to Nazanin, as her husband had long been imploring.

To Leanna Burnard, legal officer at Redress, a human rights charity who supported Richard through the family’s ordeal and campaigns to free other detainees, who camped on the street with him during the coldest, rainiest night of his three-week hunger strike.

And Penny Madden KC, a partner at Gibson Dunn, and friend of Monique Villa, former chief executive of the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) and Nazanin’s former boss, who had heard about the case “within a few days, we were reached out to”.

She said: “Monique phoned me up and asked if I could get involved.

“It’s fair to say at that stage, we thought it was an obvious mistake, that this was something that could and would be resolved very quickly.”

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson (R) meets with Richard Ratcliffe. Photo: Getty

She added: “It was obvious that you [Nazanin] were innocent, that something had gone terribly wrong with the system in Iran and the Foreign Office would swing into action, ride out to Iran on their chargers and all it took were some punchy women - like Monique - to sort this out.”

Of course, as everyone in the room is only too aware, it was, in fact, quite the opposite.

And Richard, released from what must have felt like endless negotiations with the Foreign Office, civil servants - and no less than five foreign secretaries - is relaxed and talkative.

“Liz Truss… my meeting with her when we were on hunger strike was a car crash,” he admits - prompting gasps.

Richard Ratcliffe sits outside the Foreign Office with his daughter Gabriella, while on hunger strike. Photo: Getty

“They had no answers and I was an alienated angry man who looked like a tramp, who smelled like a tramp.

“It wasn’t pleasant for anyone else… and it was clearly very embarrassing.

“I walked out of there openly disdainful and angry and frustrated. But in some ways it was the most effective because it was just honest.

“And she clearly said I never want to be in that situation again.”

The Prime Minister previously announced that the energy price cap will be frozen at £2,500 a year for a typical home. Credit: Getty Images

Those photos of Ratcliffe on hunger strike - camped outside the Foreign Office for 21 lonely winter days - now sit among the images that make up modern British history.

The visible, utter desolation in his eyes was in some ways the magic of the campaign.

Easier to ignore a woman behind prison walls, thousands of miles away, then a middle-class accountant, husband and father, starving in a tent on King Charles Street.

But, back in the Holborn lecture hall, he gives the now-prime minister her due.

Richard Ratcliffe on day 19 of his hunger strike. Photo: Getty

“In fairness to Liz Truss, I think she’s got a clarity to her,” he admitted. “It’s ‘okay, what needs to happen?’ and then ‘okay, right, let’s do it’.”

It’s clear some of her predecessors were not like that.

From Philip Hammond - “big picture” - to Jeremy Hunt, who only emotionally “got” the case after seeing a play about Nazanin’s imprisonment; Boris Johnson; and Dominic Raab, who told the BBC the 43-year-old’s treatment amounted to “torture”, each ministerial appointment meant a fresh hurdle for the legal team, of convincing each reticent, distant figure to care.

“When Liz Truss took over it was again a reset,” Ratcliffe says, with a joking outrage.

Richard Ratcliffe protests outside the Foreign Office while on hunger strike. Photo: Getty

“We kind of got put on the shelf - she wanted us to meet the junior minister!

“That’s partly why I went on hunger strike. It was just ‘let’s just get your attention here’.

“It was a lot more aggressive than I’d done previously because I felt like we needed to cut through, to bully her.”

Bullying or not, everything the relentless Ratcliffe - and his clear-eyed, painstaking team of lawyers - did, eventually, worked.

A photo of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her daughter Gabriella is seen amongst candles during a fourth birthday vigil for Gabriella. Photo: Getty

From being hosed off the front steps of the Iranian Embassy during his first hunger strike, to Conservative MPs visiting him under cover of darkness during his second, it had paid off.

Nazanin was finally released on March 16, 2022, immediately after the UK repaid its historic £393.8m debt - for a series of undelivered 1970s tanks - to Iran, and flew home the next day.

A press release from the Foreign Office described the payment as happening “in parallel”.

Penny interjects: “She clearly did not know the background or the history and she was learning things in that meeting for the first time.”

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori disembark from a plane after being freed from Iran at RAF Brize Norton. Photo: Getty

She continued: “Truss kept looking at minister Cleverley who is now foreign secretary, like ‘help me, help me’ and looking to anybody in the room actually for answers - and there just weren’t any.

“And you could see her thinking ‘if you guys don’t have any answers I can give, that is going to be an absolute train crash for me personally’.

“She obviously went away and said this needs to be resolved.”

Nazanin’s return played into a wider strategic deal, amid international efforts to bring Iran back into the diplomatic fold.

Richard Ratcliffe poses for pictures with Gabriella in his arms, after the announcement of his wife’s release. Photo: Getty

After Brexit, with EU sanctions no longer a roadblock, and even the US secretary of state publicly declaring the debt decision a “sovereign” matter for the UK, the way was clear.

But, statecraft aside, recalling that momentous day now, it’s possible to hear a pin drop as Richard speaks.

“I spent years campaigning, not letting my guard down, and I remember disbelieving it,” he said.

“My instinct was it was going to be bad news. I was so set in my ways of battle. There was standing with Liz Truss making small talk at the airport - which is not her strong point.”

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Richard Ratcliffe attend a press conference hosted by their local MP Tulip Siddiq after her release. Photo: Getty

There’s laughter - but he goes on.

“But then, you know, there’s this sort of lovely, surreal, euphoric disbelief, that it’s over. I remember going back and watching the two of them sleeping.

“In fairness to the government they put us away in a safe house for a few days. All the spring flowers were out - and we began that long journey of catching up…”

“It wouldn’t have happened without all of the people on this panel and a lot of people who helped to get her home and we are - hugely - grateful to everyone.”

His - their - joy is infectious and the room erupts in applause.

It falls to panel chair Charlie Louden, legal advisor at Redress, to have the last word.

“Nazanin, Richard, it’s been such a privilege to have been your lawyers for the past six years.

“We wish you all the best for your new life - and we hope we’ll be seeing a lot less of you.”

For more information about the HRLA, visit the Eventbrite page here and you can read more of LondonWorld’s coverage of Nazanin and Richard here.