LONDON – Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian detained in Tehran since 2016, was due for release Sunday after five years in a case that deepened a diplomatic rift between Britain and Iran and drew international condemnation.
However, what exactly will happen remains uncertain, as it has been during much of his detention, a time filled with heightened expectations and dashed hopes for his family and supporters.
On Sunday morning, her husband said there was no sign that she would be allowed to return to London despite the official end of her sentence. Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was found guilty of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government, is still under house arrest in Tehran, still without her passport and still without a response at the end of the ordeal.
“It is, in my opinion, clearly a game of chess. She’s the pawn, ”her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, said in an interview last week. “And this is not the start of this game.”
Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 43, denied the charges. Rights groups, Western officials and the United Nations have said her case is one of many cases in which Iran has arbitrarily detained foreigners on baseless charges, often of dual nationality like Ms. Zaghari- Ratcliffe.
Rights groups have accused Iran of trying to normalize what they call hostage diplomacy with the West by arresting people on trumped-up charges and then using them as bargaining chips. Politics. Iran has denied engaging in the practice and argued that its dealings with Iranian citizens like Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe were a domestic matter.
Previous unpredictable interactions with Iranian authorities left his family to prepare for the worst ahead of Sunday’s deadline, including the fact that the day could pass without his release. Mr Ratcliffe feared that she “would drift past a point which was the obvious decision point, which made us hope we would bring her home”.
Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s ordeal began in April 2016, when she was arrested at Tehran airport after visiting family in Iran with her daughter, Gabriella.
Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who worked as a project manager for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was tried and ultimately jailed in the notorious Evin prison, where she spent time in solitary confinement and suffered health problems mental and physical.
The British government granted him diplomatic protection in 2019 in an attempt to gain his freedom, and her transfer from prison to house arrest last March as the coronavirus pandemic swept across Iran raised hopes that she would receive leniency and be able to return to Britain.
Instead, she stayed in custody at his parents’ home and is required to wear an electronic ankle bracelet. In September, Iran filed new charges against her and scheduled a new trial, although this was eventually halted.
Sunday came with few signs of a change in his status. In order for her to return to Britain, authorities must remove her ankle bracelet, return her passport and give her permission to leave.
Her husband had hoped she could be on a plane on Monday, but that possibility seemed increasingly slim. “She had been counting back to that date for 18 months,” said Mr Ratcliffe, crossing the days off a calendar in his family home. “There is something deeply unsettling about crossing that threshold, because if it can happen, anything can happen.”
According to her husband, Iranian officials told Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe her detention will end when Britain settles a four-decade-old debt of £ 400million (around $ 550million) linked to a weapons deal. failed with the Shah of Iran before his overthrow in 1979.
Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained just ahead of a legal battle over the debt, and the question of whether Britain should pay her was due to start in a London court. Iran said debt was not a factor in its detention.
Mr Ratcliffe has criticized what he describes as a wait-and-see approach from British officials on his wife’s status, but said he was more optimistic after meeting with Foreign Minister Dominic Raab last week.
A spokesperson for the UK Foreign Office said in a statement that Mr Raab and the office had remained “in close contact with Zaghari-Ratcliffe and his family, and continued to provide our support.” He criticized his detention “as a diplomatic lever”.
“We continue to do all we can to secure the release of British nationals arbitrarily detained so that they can be reunited with their relatives,” the statement said.
Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International UK, said in a statement last week that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe had “suffered a lot during this long ordeal”.
“We have always said that Nazanin should never have been jailed in the first place,” Allen said, calling on the Iranian authorities to “confirm as soon as possible that preparations are indeed underway to facilitate the release of Nazanin”.
But for now, she and her family are on hold.
“It’s a perpetual ambiguity,” Ratcliffe said. “You’ve got so long, maybe she’ll be home, maybe it’ll get worse, maybe it’ll stay the same for a year.”