'My Body Is Getting Creaky': British Dad on 19-Day Hunger Strike for Wife's Freedom

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was imprisoned in Iran in 2016. Her husband Richard Ratcliffe speaks to VICE World News about the lengths he's going to get her back.
November 12, 2021, 11:56am
Richard Ratcliffe outside the The Foreign Office in London, following a meeting with Foreign Office minister. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images
Richard Ratcliffe outside the The Foreign Office in London Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images

A few minutes away from London’s Trafalgar Square lies a grey stone street only accessible through a granite archway. Not far away, tourists take photos of mounted guards outside Admiralty House, and activists stage small protests near the gates of Downing Street.

It’s here, just round the corner from the Prime Minister’s official residence, that Richard Ratcliffe is on a hunger strike fighting for the freedom of his wife. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a 42-year-old British Iranian citizen and charity worker, was imprisoned in 2016 under charges of, “plotting to topple the Iranian government,” which her supporters vehemently deny. After years in the notorious Evin prison for political prisoners, she was temporarily released in 2020 because of the COVID pandemic and has remained under house arrest since then, despite new charges against her and the threat of reimprisonment. For five years, Zaghari-Ratcliffe has faced gruelling circumstances in an Iranian jail, away from her husband, her home, and their young daughter Gabriella – now 6 – over a kafkaesque international disagreement. 

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Richard Ratcliffe continues his hunger strike. Photo: Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Richard Ratcliffe continues his hunger strike. Photo: Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Ratcliffe has spent the last 19 days on hunger strike outside the UK’s Foreign Office. To say he seems tired is an understatement. His face is ruddy from the cold and lack of food, and he speaks softly, so much so I worry the recorder won’t pick him up. 

“I'm knackered at this point,” he tells VICE World News, sat on a camping chair, surrounded by messages of support and a lightboard that reads, “HUNGER FOR JUSTICE DAY 19.” “This has been quite a full-on day. My body is probably getting a bit creaky now. We just had a fairly intensive meeting with ministers which didn't go well.”

Ratcliffe had just come from a meeting inside the Foreign Office to speak to Middle East minister James Cleverly. After the talk, he told supporters and press that the meeting had been “depressing.” It seemed like after 19 days, little progress had been made. 

“In terms of what we got told? Not much,” Ratcliffe said after the meeting. “[Cleverly] couldn't give a timeline of when things were going to move forward. We asked about diplomatic protection and what they were willing to do with it. They didn’t have anything to say. We asked about the debt, and they wouldn’t talk about it and really clammed up.”

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s continued imprisonment has become linked to a decades-old debt the UK owes to Iran from the 1970s after it failed to deliver an order of military tanks before the Shah was toppled. The issue of why the UK hasn’t paid the debt it owes is one shrouded in mystery – so much that it wasn’t until 2020 that the UK government even acknowledged it. Despite an international arbitration process in 2008 which ruled that the UK must pay the money, little has been done to pay back the four-decade-old £400 million debt. As time passes and ministers obfuscate, Zaghari-Ratcliffe spends another day away from her family and freedom. 

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After Ratcliffe’s meeting, he is clearly disheartened. “I told [ministers] I just don't hear any hope. I don't hear any strategy that is going to stop [Iran] playing games.”

Claudia Winkleman and Victoria Coren Mitchell as they meet and talk to Richard Ratcliffe. Photo: Aaron Chown/PA Images via Getty Images

Claudia Winkleman and Victoria Coren Mitchell as they meet and talk to Richard Ratcliffe. Photo: Aaron Chown/PA Images via Getty Images

What is motivating Ratcliffe through this exhausting strike? “To push the government to change its path,” he says. “My job is to protect Nazanin. She was threatened with imprisonment. It felt like by being here we prevented that for a bit. I think we have. Nothing's happened on that case. No phone call has come from the prison saying ‘come in.’”

For now, Zaghari-Ratcliffe remains on house arrest, with the risk of reimprisonment on the horizon. “I feel there's greater understanding of the position there was before but as today's meeting showed, we didn't make further progress than that,” Ratcliffe says.

The couple’s story is a heartbreaking one about the human cost of diplomatic tensions. Ratcliffe will continue his hunger strike until Friday, but due to health implications he is likely to end it soon. Facing disappointment from Nazanin and his daughter, who barely understands what’s happening according to Ratcliffe, it’s a difficult position to face after so many days without food, and so many years fighting for the safety of his wife. 

“I'm not sure [what's next],” says Ratcliffe “This is a short term tactic, I have to stop it quite soon. There's so much lovely support we've received – it's really moving. Once we stop this and recover, we need to learn how to channel that care to keep the government honest.”

Throughout his time camped outside the Foreign Office, there has been an outpouring of support – from UK celebrities like Victoria Coren Mitchell and Claudia Winkleman as well as activists and the general public. When I visit, a woman hands him a bunch of flowers as he sits, clearly deflated, and another gives him a scarf she has knitted him. He looks genuinely touched, but his energy levels are low. Despite his strike – the second he has done for Zaghari-Ratcliffe – it seems the path to her freedom is no clearer.