Photography courtesy of Pascale Frazer-Carroll
Richard Ratcliffe is on day eight of his hunger strike outside the Iranian embassy. He’s doing it in solidarity with his wife Nazanin, who is also striking to protest her continued imprisonment in Iran. I’ve spent the week with Richard, and the last three years supporting their family’s relentless campaign for Nazanin’s freedom.
In 2016 when Nazanin went on holiday to celebrate Nowruz (Iranian new year) with her parents, they could never have imagined that at the airport on her way home she would be arrested, separated from her 22 month old daughter Gabriella, and thrown into solitary confinement. Since she has been in prison. Her family believes she is being held hostage as a political pawn in trade negotiations between Iran and the UK. Gabriella lives with her grandparents in Iran, brought up over the last three years by her mum and dad over Facetime and prison visits.
I met Richard three years ago – shortly after Nazanin’s arrest. I work at Change.org, and my job is to help people who start petitions, to give them the best chances of winning. After Nazanin was imprisoned Richard tried following Foreign Office instructions to stay quiet. But after months of inaction, at his wit’s end, he started a petition. As a part of my role, I have been helping him to tell Nazanin’s story, supporting his fight to bring her home.
“It’s not the first time Nazanin has gone on hunger strike, but in the past, the press and the UK government didn’t pay much attention”
I’d hoped they would never reach the point of desperation where hunger-striking felt like the only choice. But it has been over one thousand days and this family have tried everything: they have listened to Foreign Office advice; they have met with ministers; got celebrity support, have had global press coverage; they have even flown to New York to meet with the UN and still Nazanin is in jail. They believe that both the Iranian and British authorities are culpable for her continued detention – they say whilst it is Iran imprisoning her, there is a lot more the UK government could do to bring her home.
It’s not the first time Nazanin has gone on hunger strike, but in the past, the press and the UK government didn’t pay much attention. It’s hard to conceptualise what a hunger strike means unless you see it. How a person’s face changes, how dizzy they get, the way the mind slows down, mood swings and blurred vision. She has decided to do it again out of desperation – there are few other ways to protest from inside a prison cell. When she announced the strike one of the reasons Richard decided to join her was to get the world to see what a hunger strike really looks like, to see just what Nazanin felt forced to put herself through to escape the nightmare she is in.
This week I’ve helped Richard keep a video diary of his strike. Each day, someone from our little team goes to record him, and to check he is okay. I sit with him often, and I’ve watched him get rapidly weaker. I’m worried he won’t physically be able to record them much longer and say everything he wants to the world. He struggles to stand-up for longer than a few moments now. He has an eczema outbreak on his face and his words are starting to jumble. He is usually very calm and level headed, but when Boris Johnson made comments during the leadership debate about Nazanin’s case, I saw him lose his temper for the first time in all the years I’ve known him.
“The not eating makes me angrier, less level headed than I would normally be,” he tells me. It’s not easy to watch someone you know, that has become a friend, put their body through this. Seeing him in this way gives a new perspective on the trauma their family are being put through. He is wearing his and Nazanin’s pain on his body for the world to see.
“When Boris Johnson made comments during the leadership debate about Nazanin’s case, I saw him lose his temper for the first time in all the years I’ve known him”
It’s only possible for Richard to have short calls with Nazanin, protracted through a prison phone, so it is hard to fully understand what this hunger strike is doing to her body. We know it will be harder for her because her health has rapidly been deteriorating while in prison. She said she is getting weaker, that it’s become a struggle to put together sentences.
Working on a campaign like this is tough – I do my job because I want to see those fighting for justice winning their battles. Working with Richard and Nazanin I have seen a family in pain for years. It’s disheartening that they have been forced to fight for this long. The thing that keeps me motivated is knowing how much strength Nazanin and Richard draw from their supporters. Their petition has reached over two million signatures and continues to grow. The number of supporters have given this couple the power to hold politicians to account, and their supporters comments and actions give them hope that one day things will be different. Nazanin said knowing all these people are out there makes her stronger, and feel less alone.
That power of this support has never resonated more than it has this week. Whilst Richard is camping out in the pouring rain, children have come to tell him jokes to keep his spirits up. Iranians based in the UK worried supporting Nazanin might put their family at risk, have still made the trip to protest by his side. Pensioners have travelled hundreds of miles to sit and pray for their family.
The make-shift campsite outside the embassy has become a living embodiment of the love and support people have shown their family. In an attempt to move the protest on, the embassy erected large metal barricades on the pavement outside the building. Instead of being deterred, supporters have turned the barricades into a canvas for their resistance. They’ve decorated them with placards with calls to action for the next prime minister, surrounded them with flowers, and hung pictures of Nazanin.
This week those that haven’t been able to go to the embassy, have supported in other ways. Thousands have tweeted messages, shared interviews and written letters. On Wednesday, thousands of people contacted their MPs, leading to dozens going down to visit and show that they care.
If you want to help free Nazanin you can sign the petition, contact the Iranian ambassador, write to your MP and ask them to visit the Iranian Embassy and go down to the embassy and sign the Free Nazanin guestbook.
Eventually, they will have to stop the hunger strike – when either one of them can no longer go on. It could be days or even weeks. But one thing I know, after all this time, is that this is a family that will never stop fighting – as long as they have people like you backing them – giving them the strength to carry on.