Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe holds a picture of her with her husband and daughter

UK Must Review its Response to the Torture of British Citizens Abroad

The handling of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case raises urgent questions about how the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) responds to the torture of British citizens abroad and the effectiveness of its current approach.  

REDRESS is urging the UK government to launch an independent, external review of its policies on protecting British nationals overseas from torture and ill-treatment and their effectiveness.  

In a BBC interview aired yesterday, Nazanin, a victim of torture and hostage-taking in Iran for nearly six years, explained that she was required by Iranian authorities to sign a false confession as a condition to her release, and was encouraged to do so by UK government representatives, which she did under duress and found deeply distressing. The precise nature of the UK involvement in this incident can only be established after a full review of all the facts, but REDRESS remains concerned about the role played by UK authorities.   

In some cases, forcing a person to make a false confession under the threat of a return to prison can constitute torture under international law. Torture is often used by state hostage-takers as a tool to exert pressure on the victim’s home state. This is why protection from torture is critical in state hostage situations.  

The extreme pressure exerted by Iran on Nazanin to sign a false confession at the point of her release represents a continuation of her severe suffering and torture by Iran. Until her release she lived under house arrest in Tehran, with the constant threat that she could be returned to prison at any moment.  

Years of abuse at the hands of Iranian authorities have left Nazanin with long-lasting health conditions, including serious and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The FCDO was made aware that Nazanin was suffering torture and other ill-treatment, including by being subjected to prolonged solitary confinement and inhumane conditions of detention, by Nazanin, her family and REDRESS as far back as December 2017. However, it was only four years later, after REDRESS submitted a medico-legal report to the FCDO evidencing the severity of her suffering, that then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab acknowledged in a media interview that Iran’s treatment of Nazanin amounted to torture, and the FCDO finally raised these allegations with the Iranian authorities. However, ministers subsequently chose not to refer to torture in future public statements and the government has taken minimal action to hold Iran to account. 

The UK government’s approach does not appear to be in line with the FCDO’s policies and the UK’s international obligations in relation to torture. The policies which are publicly available suggest that the government must not “participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture or mistreatment for any purpose”. It also states that the FCDO takes “all allegations or concerns of torture very seriously”, requiring it to “follow up with action appropriate to the circumstances of the case.” Under international law the UK has an obligation to use all available means to prevent torture, wherever it occurs. Moreover, it should hold Iran to account for the torture of British citizens.  

Rupert Skilbeck, Director of REDRESS, said: 

Nazanin’s case highlights the need for an independent review of the Foreign Office’s policies and practices and how effective they are in preventing and responding to the torture of British citizens abroad. With over 100 cases each year in which UK citizens claim they’ve suffered serious human rights abuses abroad, including torture and other ill-treatment, lessons must be learned from Nazanin’s experience in order to prevent others suffering as Nazanin has.” 

For more information, please contact Eva Sanchis, Head of Communications of REDRESS, on [email protected] or +44 (0)7857110076. 

Notes to editors 

For more information on Nazanin case see here.

Read also our report Beyond discretion: The Protection of British nationals abroad

Photo credit: Free Nazanin Campaign