Zaghari-Ratcliffe: 'Interrogators threatened to take my daughter away'

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor
·6 min read

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s interrogators threatened to take away her daughter, claimed her husband was a spy and repeatedly misled her about the prospects of her release, she reveals in an account of her first interrogation in 2016.

The 40 days she spent in complete isolation in prison after her arrest by Iranian authorities, included days without sleep, panic attacks, fainting and repeated efforts to make her confess she was a spy. She became so distressed that at times she began to “doubt herself” and question whether their false accusations were correct.

“They tried to induce me to say something that didn’t exist,” said Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who worked for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency. “They said they had top-secret evidence that I worked for the [British] parliament and against Iran.

“I was sure that was not the case, but they repeated it so much that I doubted myself when I returned to the cell. I spent long hours in my cell wondering if the projects I had worked on had anything to do with Iran. Then I told myself that I was a 100% sure that my projects had nothing to do with Iran, but after each interrogation I would review these cases over and over again.”

Her first person account appears in White Torture, a new book of interviews with female Iranian political prisoners that has been compiled by Narges Mohammadi, who is in prison for her human rights work.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe is due to return to court in Tehran to face fresh charges on Monday and the UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, has said the basis of the UK-Iranian relationship will be changed if she is sent back to prison.

The British-Iranian dual national has served four and half years of a five-year sentence imposed after she was arrested in April 2016. She had been visiting Tehran to see her parents along with her then one-year-old daughter, Gabriella.

“One day during the interrogation I felt so overwhelmed that I fell off the chair,” she said. “Interrogations in Kerman always caused me psychological distress. I was so anxious. The looks and behaviour of the interrogator there bothered me greatly. I was very afraid of him.

“The interrogators threatened to send Gabriella to London if I did not cooperate. They kept telling me that I had lost my job and that if interrogation took too long my husband would leave me. They asked me to tell them about my friends and their work projects. I had not really slept for three weeks. I had not seen my child and I was under a lot of pressure.”

She added: “I felt awful in Kerman. I cried. I shouted. I read the Qur’an a lot. Maybe I finished the Qur’an seven times. I talked to God, shouted and fainted. When I woke up, I saw a rosary in my hand and I fell on the rug. I realised that I had been unconscious for a long time. Time did not pass in Kerman at all.

“I kept whispering to God to help me. I did not know what to do. There was a Qur’an in my cell that I read constantly. The atmosphere in the cell was scary.

“The solitary cell gave me panic attacks. I’m claustrophobic. Being confined and alone was severe torture because I was so scared. I told the women guards that if they left the door just a bit open I could see them and I would calm down. At least I slept, but they said it was the law that the door and the window on the door had to be closed.”

The story of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s interrogation and solitary confinement helps to explain why she fears returning to prison so much, as she has been told she will on Monday, even if she is not likely to face the same level of interrogation again.

Describing her mood during 40 days of her first period of solitary confinement in Kerman and 18 further days in the prison’s general ward, she recalled: “My heart palpitated so hard that when I put my head on the blanket it was as if it would explode.

“The floor of the cell was stone. They gave me a dirty blanket to throw under me and a very inappropriate blanket to throw on top of me. The weather was cool and I slept in my coat, jeans and jacket.”

She said her interrogators threatened her with a long sentence unless she confessed to espionage.

“They said that I did not know my husband and that he was a spy and that he had lied about where he worked.

“There were days when they wanted me to say that my husband was a spy and that I worked for spy organisations, but I refused. My situation got worse.”

She said she sometimes said things to them “just because I was under pressure”.

Describing her cell, she said the room had a heavy iron door with a large iron lock that was always locked and a hatch was welded on it. The area of the quarantine cell was about two by one meters. Inside the cell was a half-wall with a toilet on the floor behind it. Next to it was a sink and a rubbish can. The room had a fan and a powerful naked light bulb.

She said after she was transferred to Ervin prison, and she met her family, she hardly recognised her daughter.

She said she became speechless and exasperated when her daughter asked her to go with them to her parent’s house. “Every time she [Gabriella] cried goodbye I would break down. The interrogators were present in the meeting room. When saying goodbye, I wanted to go ahead and tie her shoes for her, but they wouldn’t let me and I had to leave her.”

As she saw Gabriella more often, it made her miss her daughter even more. “The interrogator loved her and wanted to hug her. Once when he hugged Gabriella during the meeting, I wanted to take Gabriella from his arms and beat him.

“Near my birthday, when they let me out for some fresh air, I walked and talked to God. I said ‘God, let me go, God forgive me’ and so on. My thoughts were not in my control. It was as if I was not on my own. It was as if I was doing things I knew I could not do. I often spoke loudly and recited prayers. Even though I knew I would not be released, I hoped it would not last.”