Our family’s battle to free Nazanin from Iran

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a British-Iranian woman who has been in jail in Iran for nearly 19 months, with the country’s regime claiming she was working against the state.

Writing here, exclusively for Sky News, her husband Richard describes the struggle of campaigning for his wife’s release while their three-year-old daughter remains in Tehran…

There is a tension between being a campaigning husband and a real husband.

On one hand, there is a way in which supporting Nazanin is about getting her out as quickly as possible – campaigning and battling and pushing and telling her story as effectively as I can.

And then there’s the real relationship that’s just about listening and caring and emotional life – that can get squeezed.

Nazanin has told me there are times when I have not done or said the right thing. She can be quite clear sometimes.

She looks to me to solve the problems and to understand everything and she gets frustrated by the fact that I don’t.

A lot of what has happened is uncharted and undiscovered as yet. There’s a lot Nazanin can’t possibly share and even if she shared, I’m not sure I would understand the words.

There are times when she has got angry with me – when she is not angry with me as much as angry with the situation.

:: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: A timeline

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, husband Richard Ratcliffe and their child.

Image: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, husband Richard Ratcliffe and their child.

I can feel a shaking frustration: “You promised me something and it’s not going to happen. Why?”

There is no reassurance I can offer other than I’m still here, I care and you are not alone.

That’s where the support I get from campaigning is important as I can share that with her – all that love and care out there.

I would have been pottering around when I found out she wasn’t coming home. Nazanin was on holiday. I was having a nice couple of weeks to myself, without toys on the floor.

I was due to pick her up from Gatwick Airport at 8am. I was in bed when I got the phone call from her family saying she had not caught the flight.

In truth I didn’t really get it. Her family went to the airport but were sent home to wait for a phone call. But there was no phone call.

Those first three days were the most panicky time. Her mum and dad were terrified. All of our imaginations were running wild. I had seen a film with Nazanin about the revolution. People disappeared.

Video: UK considering £450m Iran debt settlement to help free jailed Briton

When she was finally allowed to call, I was so relieved. She said she was being held, was safe and had a kebab for lunch. She wasn’t allowed to talk about anything else.

Gabriella was safe with her grandparents but I knew she would be missing her mum. Until that point, Nazanin had left her only once for one night, with me.

In the weeks that followed, I met people through people who had been in prison in Iran. When they told me their stories, that’s when the shock really hit.

They described the structures of cruelty, the psychological pressure, the isolation, the abuse and the relentless interrogation with the light on all the time while in solitary confinement.

She was alone. All I could think of was I had left her alone.

I thought I need to do something and I don’t know what.

It was stronger than guilt. I felt I had let her down. I don’t feel that now. What drives me now is the sense that I want her to know that I’ve not let her down. I’ve done what I could for her.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and daughter Gabriella

Image: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and daughter Gabriella

Three weeks after she was arrested, I knew I needed to go public. But it was stressful. I couldn’t be sure, am I going to have to go against her family? It was a very hard period.

After that, it went through phases. It was a whirlwind at first. I remember the minister – a UK government minister – telling me I need to be in therapy. I don’t think he meant it fully.

We set up an e-petition which quite soon became an important community for the campaign. Within 10 days we had half a million signatures. I was sending out emails to half a million people.

I was pretty sure it was going to take a few months. Worst-case scenario, I thought it might take up until Christmas. She didn’t come home.

My low point was when the appeal failed in January.

After that, I didn’t allow myself to think she is coming out in five years. I thought that she will be out at Christmas, in August, and so on.

I’ve had no routine. It keeps changing. One minute it’s full on media. In July, there was much less media attention so I tried to do human rights things – like working with Redress on proving Nazanin’s rights had been violated and the Government had to do something.

Evin Prison in Tehran has a wing of political prisoners

Video: ‘Black hole of evil’: Life in Nazanin’s jail

It takes a lot of meetings. You find it out through your own mistakes. When campaigning doesn’t work, you ask yourself what else is missing.

At first, for all of us, we made it feel temporary. But then it became less temporary.

We had to get Gabriella a nursery in Tehran, but I am just a bloke at the end of the phone. There is a limit to what I can do for her.

Nazanin’s mum, who Gabriella lives with, will do what she thinks is right, in consultation with what her daughter wants.

Her mum can’t speak English and I can’t speak Farsi so the ability for us to debate stuff is not there.

I don’t get frustrated at all. I get irritable but I try to worry about the things that need worrying about the most – things I can make a difference to.

Most of the time it feels like I’m juggling badly.

I feel that Gabriella is in safe hands but I’m aware that I’m missing out on all the changes she goes through and all the joy that there is in, for example, the little cheeky games children play.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Image: Thousands have backed the campaign to free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

At the moment, I speak to Nazanin twice a week, for an hour and sometimes more.

Back in the day, even in June, it was one call every couple of months – on average for the first year it was about one a month.

Gabriella I call three times a week. At the start it was less.

It’s quite visual. She is not going to waste time on the sound. It needs to be something we can see. Either I watch her doing some dancing or showing her dollies or a dollies’ tea party or feeding stuff across the phone, like an apple.

Things that you don’t need the language for – games.

I think she thinks I’m a kind of imaginary phone friend or play mate.

One thing her mum does in prison is they will often draw a picture of mummy, daddy and Gabriella, or daddy back in London, to try and reinforce that she has a mummy and daddy.

So she has the idea of daddy and then she has the reality, this man that speaks to her on the screen.

I try to live in the present. A little bit in the future. I try not to beat myself up about things. I allow myself to muddle through, struggle on; I make mistakes all the time. It’s a rough old hand I’ve been dealt recently, and I’ll do my best.

That means regularly, I will walk into difficult situations – like meeting the Foreign Secretary – and get through. I feel in the grand scheme of things, does it matter more than the phone call that keeps Nazanin’s spirits up?

The past couple of weeks, it has gone stratospheric. I’ve been on the front page of every newspaper. It is unimaginable compared to where we were three weeks ago.

It feels like things are moving and movement is good. My greatest fear is inertia. I always feel it’s shameful, how could it happen, but it did.

I try not to hope, in case it doesn’t work. But it feels to me that there is a level of concern and care that means that she could be home for Christmas.