Who is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe? What did British charity worker do - why was she detained in Iran since 2016

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s six year fight to return home after being detained in Iran is set to be explored in a new Channel 4 documentary called Nazanin

In 2022, British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe returned to the UK after she had been detained in Iran for six years. In the early hours of the morning on 17 March last year, Zaghari-Ratcliffe flew into London from Iran’s capital Tehran.

Her case attracted widespread attention since she was arrested in 2016, with questions over why it took the UK Government and five Foreign Secretaries - including former Prime Minister Boris Johnson - so long to secure her release.

Filmed over the course of six years, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s journey to get home and how her family persevered in her abscene is the subject of a new Channel 4 documentary titled Nazanin. The documentary will air on Channel 4 at 9pm on 16 March.

So who is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, why did the Iranian authorities detain her - and how can you watch her BBC interview?

Here’s everything you need to know.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson may have contributed to the length of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention in Iran (image: AFP/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson may have contributed to the length of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention in Iran (image: AFP/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson may have contributed to the length of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention in Iran (image: AFP/Getty Images)

Who is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe?

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a 44-year-old British-Iranian dual national.

She was born in the Iranian capital Tehran in 1978 - a year during which Iran was in the midst of a revolution that resulted in pro-western ruler Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi being overthrown and replaced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979.

(graphic: Mark Hall)
(graphic: Mark Hall)
(graphic: Mark Hall)

It has been a conservative Islamic republic - i.e. a hardline religious state that closely adheres to Islamic laws - ever since and is accused of human rights abuses.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was an English teacher before moving into humanitarian work in the wake of the 2003 Bam earthquake in south-east Iran, where she was a translator helping the relief effort. In 2007, she moved to the UK to study for a masters in communication management at London Metropolitan University.

Over the next few years, she held communications jobs at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the World Health Organisation.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe worked for humanitarian organisations before becoming a charity worker at organisations linked to the BBC and Reuters (image: PA)
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe worked for humanitarian organisations before becoming a charity worker at organisations linked to the BBC and Reuters (image: PA)
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe worked for humanitarian organisations before becoming a charity worker at organisations linked to the BBC and Reuters (image: PA)

Zaghari-Ratcliffe went on to work for BBC Media Action - the corporation’s international development charity - and the Thomson Reuters Foundation - the news agency’s charity that promotes "socio-economic progress" and the rule of law. It is these two jobs - her BBC role in particular - that Iran would come to use against her.

Soon after her arrival in the UK, she met Richard Ratcliffe, an accountant who she wed in Winchester in 2009.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard Ratcliffe has worked tirelessly to secure her release over the last 5 years (image: Getty Images)
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard Ratcliffe has worked tirelessly to secure her release over the last 5 years (image: Getty Images)
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard Ratcliffe has worked tirelessly to secure her release over the last 5 years (image: Getty Images)

The couple welcomed their daughter, Gabriella, in 2014.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe took her to visit family in Iran four times between 2014 and 2016 - it was on one of these trips in 2016 that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained by the Iranian authorities.

Why was Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe detained in Iran?

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard - a part of the army that polices the country - while trying to board a flight back to the UK with her daughter in April 2016. Her arrest came just a day after British-Iranian relations were partially restored following a US-led deal to limit the country’s nuclear arms ambitions.

While the reason for her arrest was not announced at the time, it emerged in July that the authorities believed Zaghari-Ratcliffe was involved in the "design and implementation of cyber and media projects to cause the soft toppling of the Islamic Republic".

She denied the allegations.

Iran is a highly conservative religious state that has had poor relations with the west since a revolt in 1979 (image: AFP/Getty Images)
Iran is a highly conservative religious state that has had poor relations with the west since a revolt in 1979 (image: AFP/Getty Images)
Iran is a highly conservative religious state that has had poor relations with the west since a revolt in 1979 (image: AFP/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, her daughter Gabriella - who had had her passport taken off her when her mother was arrested - was cared for by her grandparents.

In September 2016, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years in prison on charges that have never been publicly revealed. The then-UK Prime Minister Theresa May had raised her case with her Iranian counterpart President Hassan Rouhani, but to no avail.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was then moved to Evin prison - a notorious jail in which political prisoners are held and often tortured.

In 2017, the Iranian authorities brought more charges against her. They claimed she was running a BBC Persian online journalism course - the BBC World Service network being officially banned in Iran.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was born, bred and then detained in Iran’s capital Tehran (image: AFP/Getty Images)
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was born, bred and then detained in Iran’s capital Tehran (image: AFP/Getty Images)
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was born, bred and then detained in Iran’s capital Tehran (image: AFP/Getty Images)

Her husband Richard said the ordeal had left her in a “fragile state” and that she had been diagnosed with depression.

Boris Johnson involvement in Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe case

The situation got worse in November 2017 when then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson confirmed Iran’s suspicions about Zaghari-Ratcliffe, even though they were not true. He told MPs at a meeting of the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Select Committee that “she was simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it”.

Days later, Johnson’s words were used against Zaghari-Ratcliffe in a court hearing.

Richard Ratcliffe went on a three-week hunger strike outside the Foreign Office in London to raise awareness of his wife’s continued imprisonment in Iran (image: PA)
Richard Ratcliffe went on a three-week hunger strike outside the Foreign Office in London to raise awareness of his wife’s continued imprisonment in Iran (image: PA)
Richard Ratcliffe went on a three-week hunger strike outside the Foreign Office in London to raise awareness of his wife’s continued imprisonment in Iran (image: PA)

Iranian prosecutors threatened her with a 16-year sentence for being involved in "propaganda against the regime".

Richard Ratcliffe said the saga had left his wife on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Johnson attempted to rectify his mistakes over the following months by meeting with Ratcliffe and Iranian ministers, but failed to prevent Zaghari-Ratcliffe being sentenced to another two years in prison.

In the 2019 Conservative leadership contest, he rejected the suggestion that he had had any responsibility for her continued detention.

How Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe came to be released

In 2018, it first emerged Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention was linked with a financial dispute between the UK and Iran.

All the while, her mental state was deteriorating and she was taken to Evin prison’s hospital and mental health wing multiple times in 2019. On one such visit, it was reported she was placed in solitary confinement and chained to her hospital bed.

Jeremy Hunt, the fourth Conservative Foreign Secretary to be in office during Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s internment, gave her husband Richard a pebble to symbolise the Government’s pledge to ‘leave no stone unturned’ when it came to her case (image: PA)
Jeremy Hunt, the fourth Conservative Foreign Secretary to be in office during Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s internment, gave her husband Richard a pebble to symbolise the Government’s pledge to ‘leave no stone unturned’ when it came to her case (image: PA)
Jeremy Hunt, the fourth Conservative Foreign Secretary to be in office during Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s internment, gave her husband Richard a pebble to symbolise the Government’s pledge to ‘leave no stone unturned’ when it came to her case (image: PA)

Zaghari-Ratcliffe also went on multiple hunger strikes in 2019, including a joint one with her husband in June that lasted for 15 days.

In March 2019, in an attempt to turn up the pressure on Iran to release her, Johnson’s successor as Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, granted her diplomatic protection. This mechanism escalated her case from consular level to state level.

Later that year in October, Gabriella Zaghari-Ratcliffe returned to the UK for the first time in more than three years. It emerged she struggled to speak English given she had spent most of her short life in Iran.

The first signs Zaghari-Ratcliffe could be released arose in March 2020 when she was taken out of prison and put on home leave in the wake of the Covid pandemic. She had to wear an ankle tag and could not move more than 300 metres away from her parents’ home.

New charges were brought against her by the Iranian state in September 2020 and her jail term was extended by another year in April 2021.

In October, Zaghari-Ratcliffe lost an appeal against her sentence, leading her husband to embark upon a three-week hunger strike outside the Foreign Office in London.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, partygate scandal and Ukraine crisis, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case dropped out of the public eye.

But on 15 March 2022, it emerged she had been given back her passport before being allowed to board a flight from Tehran to London on 16 March. Liz Truss, the fifth Conservative Foreign Secretary to be in office since Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention, revealed she had been released after the UK settled a £400 million debt dating back to the 1970s.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is set to be interviewed by Emma Barnett for BBC One and Women’s Hour (image: PA)
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is set to be interviewed by Emma Barnett for BBC One and Women’s Hour (image: PA)
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is set to be interviewed by Emma Barnett for BBC One and Women’s Hour (image: PA)

The Foreign Secretary said the money was given back in a way that complied with UK and international sanctions, with the funds being confined to use towards humanitarian issues.

Richard Ratcliffe said he was “deeply grateful” for her release and that he and their daughter Gabriella were “looking forward to a new life”.

Ahead of a BBC interview, Zaghari-Ratcliffe said she was forced to sign a false confession in the presence of the British government at Tehran airport ahead of her flight back to the UK. She said the entire process was filmed, and questioned why the UK did not challenge Iran over why she had to confess to crimes she says she did not commit.