Richard and Gabriella Ratcliffe

The Free Nazanin Campaign and REDRESS Call for Magnitsky Sanctions on Perpetrators of Iran’s Hostage-taking 

The Free Nazanin campaign and REDRESS, supported by victims of hostage-taking in Iran, have submitted a dossier to the new UK Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, asking her to impose Magnitsky sanctions on ten Iranian officials involved in Iran’s hostage-taking. 

Human rights (Magnitsky) sanctions, which were first introduced by the UK government last year, enable states to target individuals who have committed serious violations of human rights by restricting their travel and freezing their assets. 

This submission comes with the 2,000-day anniversary of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention in Iran on 23 September fast approaching, with no indication that she will be released soon. Her case is one of at least 30 cases of foreign nationals who have been arbitrarily detained in Iran for diplomatic leverage in recent years, otherwise known as ‘state hostage-taking’. 

REDRESS and the Free Nazanin Campaign are calling on the new Foreign Secretary to use her newly acquired powers to take a stand and protect British nationals. The submission calls on the UK government to impose asset freezes and travel bans on perpetrators involved in Iran’s hostage-taking, including those responsible for unlawful detentions and interrogations, illegitimate legal proceedings, human rights abuses in prisons, false and abusive propaganda, and using the victims as ‘assets’ in diplomatic negotiations. This is the first tranche submitted by REDRESS and the Free Nazanin Campaign. Additional tranches will be submitted in the coming months. Due to security concerns, the names cannot be made public at this time. 

The dossier is based on the testimony from victims, including former hostages and the families of current hostages. Victims recount consistent patterns of human rights abuses, such as unlawful arrests; incommunicado detention; long periods of solitary confinement; sham trials; coercive interrogations; torture; forced confessions; inhumane conditions of detention; denial of medical treatment; and false propaganda. 

Hostages are often told that their release depends on their country of residence doing a ‘deal’ with Iran. For example, Nazanin has been told that she is detained in relation to the UK’s failure to pay a £400 million debt to Iran. The submission exposes the deliberate and systematic nature of Iran’s hostage diplomacy, and finds that Iran’s hostage-taking process amounts to torture under international law. 

Iran’s ongoing pattern of detaining individuals with foreign nationality or residence in order to use them for diplomatic leverage has been recognised by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UN WGAD). Last year, the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) released a report finding that this pattern amounted to state hostage-taking and calling for sanctions on human rights abusers based in Iran or acting for it abroad, including those involved in the arbitrary detention of UK and dual nationals. The former UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab previously stated that Nazanin’s treatment amounts to torture and that it was “difficult to argue against” the characterisation that she is being held hostage. 

 Richard Ratcliffe, husband of Nazanin and face of the Free Nazanin campaign, said: 

“Iran conducts its diplomatic business through hostage taking, in part because it is cost free. British citizens will not be protected from hostage taking by words and soundbites, but by actions that cause the perpetrators to reassess their calculations, and consider the personal costs – for their role in what is a serial crime.”

“Diplomacy is not an abstract science; it has to be personal. This means the Foreign Secretary needs to be proactive when she engages with Iran this coming week, and she needs to be brave. Or there will be more hostages taken by Iran, and new copycat regimes.”

“The thing about 2,000 days is that we are now onto our fifth Foreign Secretary dealing with Nazanin’s case, again worrying about a new drift. I have had many conversations with the Foreign Secretary’s last three predecessors in recent years on the need for the government to wake up – to the risk hostage diplomacy represents.”

“My message to Liz Truss is that the UK’s lack of deterrent to Iran’s hostage taking is a key part of why Nazanin’s case has been able to drift for 2,000 days. The government has accepted her continuing to be held, and others being taken. It has indulged a form of organised crime. And it is time to put an end to hostage taking with impunity.”

“This file is the result of many families working together – it has been a long journey for all of us realising how our governments need to be pushed to protect their citizens. We decided to submit now because there was an increasing impatience, and concern among many of us that with the continual games of impasse in negotiations, there is every risk this could go on and on.”

“Governments can of course wait for thousands of days, states live long lives. But ordinary families do not. For us, the time to protect is now.”

Rupert Skilbeck, Director of REDRESS, said:

“Innocent victims of Iran’s hostage-taking diplomacy and their families can’t wait any longer. Since Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained more than five years ago, we have had three prime ministers and five foreign secretaries, yet there is no clear end in sight to their suffering. The time for a more robust approach has come. Until those responsible for hostage-taking know that there are real consequences for their actions, these injustices will continue.”

“We’re calling on the new UK Foreign Secretary to take the lead in coordinating a united international response to counter this growing problem. By linking individual perpetrators to specific human rights abuses, Magnitsky sanctions can trigger the changes in behaviour that are needed to challenge Iran’s decades-old diplomacy model of hostage-taking.”

 In the coming weeks the file will also be submitted to the Canadian, US, and EU governments. Coordinated sanctions have a greater impact on perpetrators, leaving fewer avenues for designated individuals to evade their effects. 

Notes to Editors 

  1. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: 
  • Nazanin is a British-Iranian charity worker who has been arbitrarily detained in Iran and separated from her husband and daughter since she was arrested at a Tehran airport on 3 April 2016. During this time, she has spent more than eight months in solitary confinement and has been denied urgent medical treatment. She was released from house arrest on 7 March 2021 but was immediately re-tried for a second set of charges on 14 March 2021. She was sentenced to a further one-year jail sentence and one-year travel ban on 26 April 2021. This sentence has not yet been implemented, pending the outcome of an appeal, as yet unscheduled. 
  • Six United Nations Special Rapporteurs have previously stated that Nazanin’s treatment may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or torture, as prohibited under Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political RightsFollowing an independent physical and psychological evaluation by doctors, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims determined that its findings were “highly consistent” with allegations of torture and ill-treatment during Nazanin’s time in detention. REDRESS considers that Iran’s treatment of Nazanin constitutes torture under the UN Convention Against Torture 
  • REDRESS has campaigned for Nazanin’s release since 2016. Following a submission by REDRESS, the UN WGAD found in 2016 that her detention was arbitrary and requested Iran to release her. REDRESS and Doughty Street Chambers, as Nazanin’s legal representatives, submitted a second complaint to the UN WGAD asking it to recognise and address Iran’s practice of state hostage-taking. 
  1. Targeted Human Rights (Magnitsky) Sanctions: 
  • Magnitsky sanctions are named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax adviser who was detained and subject to inhuman and degrading treatment following his exposure of corruption by Russian interior ministry officials in 2007. Magnitsky died in custody in 2009, at the age of 37, after being refused urgent medical treatment. Magnitsky sanctions are designed to hold perpetrators, like those responsible for Magnitsky’s treatment and death, to account. Such sanctions demonstrate how corruption and human rights violations are so often linked. 
  • The UK’s Global Human Rights Sanctions regime was first introduced in the UK on 6 July 2020. To date, there have been 78 designations under the regime. These have targeted individuals and entities complicit in atrocities such as violence against protesters and journalists in Belarus, the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, and police encounter deaths in Pakistan. 
  • The UK government has yet to impose any new sanctions against human rights abusers in Iran under its autonomous sanctions regimes since its departure from the EU. 
  • In November 2020 REDRESS filed a submission for GHRS sanctions against Chinese officials involved in abuses against Uyghur and other minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The UK, US, Canada, and EU each later designated officials for these abuses in a multilateral campaign on 22 March 2021. 

For more information or for an interview, please contact Eva Sanchis, REDRESS’ Head of Communications, on 07857110076 or [email protected]. 


Photo credit: Joshua Bratt/Alamy Stock.