In White Torture, a book about the horror of solitary confinement in Iranian jails, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe recalled her first night in jail following her arrest at Tehran airport on 3 April 2016.
“The first night of detention I did not know where I was,” she explained. “I don’t remember what happened or what I did. I was shocked. I didn’t know why it had happened. No one gave me any explanations. Nobody told me why they were treating me like that, why they took my child away from me or where I was. The interrogation began.”
The sense of bewilderment and injustice – and of wanting to interrogate her interrogators – has followed Zaghari-Ratcliffe in each of the 2,172 days that have passed since then; some of it in solitary confinement, often in a state of torment and unbearable psychological stress.
Along with her fellow British-Iranian prisoner, 68-year-old retired businessman Anoosheh Ashoori, that torment might just be about to end. It’s not a given – after six years of twists and turns, nothing can be taken for granted. But the developments on Tuesday were undoubtedly significant.
During her ordeal, Zaghari-Ratcliffe felt suicidal, often only brought back from the brink by the campaigns that their extraordinary families have mounted in the UK to keep their names in lights, and expose what they regard as a systematic Iranian practice of cynical state hostage-taking designed to secure political ends.
From her description of her first month in a cell at Kerman prison, southern Iran, it is easy to understand why she felt so desperate.
“The area of the quarantine cell was about two by one metres,” she wrote. “Inside the cell was a half-wall with a squat toilet on the floor behind it. Next to it was a sink and a trash can. The room had a fan. There was no natural light. There was a powerful lightbulb in the middle of the cell that never went out.
“My heart palpitated so hard that when I put my head on the blanket it was as if it would explode. I knew day from night by the light coming in from the sides of the fan blades on the window. At night I couldn’t sleep and only by the sound of sparrows did I know it was dawn.”
After a month of interrogation she was finally allowed to see her daughter. “After the meeting I felt awful. Gabriella had changed. She had teethed. She didn’t recognise me. I didn’t recognise her either when I first saw her. When they came in she was in my father’s arms. I was so weak that I could not stand. She clung to me and didn’t move at all for a few minutes.” She had been told her family had abandoned her as a spy.
Female prisoners in their cell in Evin prison in Tehran, pictured in 2006 Photograph: Vahid Salemi/AP
After a month she was moved from Kerman to Evin prison in Tehran. She had a cellmate and was able to see her mother and daughter once a week, but she never imagined her ordeal would last six years.
In February 2017 she wrote a letter to Gabriella, or Gisou as is her Farsi name. “My sweet girl, the sound of your laughter, has been ringing in my ears these past months, becoming one with me. Caressing your hair and listening to your velvety voice have been denied to me for many days become months. As those moments piled up, they have turned into giant black clouds pouring every night and every day like monsoon rain, constantly with no power in me to stop. Did they not hear long nightly whimpers of a mother? – those who issued a guilty verdict and to achieve their ends accused me, reproached me and locked me up in solitary confinement?”
But her story gradually became one of more than personal loss. Her husband, Richard, decided to overrule Foreign Office advice and go public about his wife’s arrest. He believed they felt he could not grasp the bigger picture of Middle East politics. Ironically by the end he was an astute reader not just of the British media and diplomacy but of Iranian politics too.
He said: ” Instrumentally, who knows what works? But I do know that Nazanin is sitting in her prison cell knowing that people are shouting for her and rooting for her, and that’s profoundly important. So I do know I’m helping her to know she’s not alone.”
Richard Ratcliffe holds her photo outside the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in London. Photograph: Frank Augstein/AP
Ratcliffe made three discoveries; first that her fate was linked to an unpaid £400m debt dating back to a deal to sell 1,500 tanks to the Shah of Iran; second, she was not alone, but part of an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps industry of hostage-taking; and finally that Boris Johnson as foreign secretary only responded to public pressure.
It was after his mistake at the foreign affairs select committee where he said she had only been in Tehran to train journalists that Johnson started briefing that he had found a way to pay the debt. The briefing was premature – there was a Whitehall and transatlantic dimension that had not been cleared.
In all his dealings with the Foreign Office, it has been the debt and the UK’s reasons for not paying it that officials and ministers have been most reluctant to discuss. On leaving his post, the former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt took the bold step of saying British Iranian dual nationals would not be released until the money was paid. Ratcliffe’s lawyers sent repeated lengthy letters setting out how the debt could be paid and not face US sanctions. Ministers simply refused to discuss the issue.
If the deal does go through – and there are many pitfalls ahead – it represents a remarkable change. It had only been last Friday that Ratcliffe and his advisers, Redress, had sent a long legal letter to the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, demanding the Foreign Office describe his wife openly as a state hostage, as opposed to a detainee.
The 15-page letter complained that the Foreign Office’s handling had allowed her detention to become not merely a bargaining chip to regain the £400m debt, but also collateral in the grand bargain over the terms on which the US would lift sanctions on Iran and return to the deal signed in 2015 limiting Iran’s nuclear programme.
But the Foreign Office only tells the families of the hostages so much, and did not reveal a British negotiating team was already on its way to Tehran. Looking at the sequence of events it was unlikely that the UK team would have travelled unless the UK had agreed to pay the debt, even if the conditions were for discussion, as well as its relationship to the completion of the nuclear deal.
But to her astonishment on Sunday, the ministry returned Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s British and Iranian passports, the start of her release process. It was the first time she had seen them since their confiscation in April 2016.
The Foreign Office swore her to secrecy. Early on Tuesday a well-placed Iranian foreign correspondent revealed the debt had finally been paid.
The Foreign Office was concerned by the leak, fearing it showed Iran might be using the possible release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori as last-minute leverage to secure better terms on the lifting of sanctions in Vienna.
The nuclear deal was virtually complete, but some feared dangling the liberation of two high profile British detainees might be a way to extract some final concessions from the British or the Americans.
In her letter five years ago to her daughter, Zaghari-Ratcliffe wrote: “There will come a day when we will throw away all these bitter and old memories, all that are decayable and only keep the lessons we learned from them. You, I and your father will never succumb to this hurricane of fate. The love we share knows no boundaries and walls. It is our life. There will come a day that we will be able to live fresh all the days of our lives.”
Perhaps that day is finally coming.