Britons arrested overseas do NOT have a 'legal right' right to help
28th December 2020

Britons arrested overseas and held in jail do NOT have a ‘legal right’ right to government help or protection even if they are being tortured, Foreign Office says

  • British citizens will have ‘no legal right to consular assistance’ if arrested abroad 
  • Government laid out obligations in letter to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s lawyers 
  • The British-Iranian dual national, 41, detained in 2016 and jailed for five years  

British citizens who are wrongfully arrested and tortured overseas will have ‘no legal right to consular assistance’ or protection from the state, the Foreign Office has announced. 

In a letter to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s lawyers, the Government said it was under no legal obligation to provide assistance to citizens who were falsely accused of a crime while travelling with a British passport.

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 41, a charity worker with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested in April 2016 at Tehran airport as she was returning home to London with her then 22-month-old daughter, Gabriella, following a family visit in 2016. 

The British-Iranian dual national was jailed for five years on allegations that she plotted to overthrow the Iranian government. 

She has always denied the claims, and is currently under house arrest in Tehran, after being released from prison earlier this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

In a letter to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s lawyers, the Foreign Office confirmed that British citizens who are wrongfully arrested overseas will have ‘no legal right to consular assistance’

In a letter seen by The Times the head of consular affairs at the Foreign Office, Sarah Broughton, explained that the Government had no obligation to protect British citizens who had been arrested overseas through no fault of their own.

Responding to the letter Ms Zaghgari’s Radcliffe’s lawyers wrote: ‘If it is really the government’s position that it has no obligations even in the extreme and unique circumstances of Nazanin’s case, then that sends an extremely alarming message to the rest of the British public.’

In 2019, former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt granted diplomatic protection for Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe in response to Iran’s treatment of her.

Despite the move, Ms Broughton said the decision to invoke the rarely-used diplomatic device ‘did not confer any specific legal obligations upon us’.

She added that the government ‘cannot investigate torture or mistreatment allegations’ and does not recognise her detention as hostage taking.     

Following the rarely-used diplomatic device last year Tehran refused to acknowledge the British-Iranian mother’s dual nationality and said the UK’s actions were illegal. 

Hopes of a breakthrough were dealt a further blow by Iran’s ambassador to the UK Hamid Baeidinejad who rejected the Foreign Office announcement. 

He said governments could only offer diplomatic protection for their own nationals and the UK was ‘acutely aware’ that ‘Iran does not recognise dual nationality’. 

Speaking at the time Mr Hunt said: ‘Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is an innocent woman who has spent the last three years in an Iranian jail, separated from her daughter and husband. 

‘We have been working hard to secure her release but despite repeated efforts have not been successful. We have not even been able to secure her the medical treatment she urgently needs despite assurances to the contrary. 

Last year Richard Ratcliffe said the move to grant his wife diplomatic protection would ‘change the status’ for her case

Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt granted diplomatic protection for Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe last year 

‘So I have today decided that the UK will take a step that is extremely unusual and exercise diplomatic protection. This represents formal recognition by the British Government that her treatment fails to meet Iran’s obligations under international law and elevates it to a formal State to State issue. 

‘I have not taken this decision lightly. I have considered the unacceptable treatment Nazanin has received over three years, including not just lack of access to medical treatment but also lack of due process in the proceedings brought against her. 

‘My decision is an important diplomatic step which signals to Tehran that its behaviour is totally wrong. 

‘It is unlikely to be a magic wand that leads to an overnight result. But it demonstrates to the whole world that Nazanin is innocent and the UK will not stand by when one of its citizens is treated so unjustly. 

‘Iran is one of the oldest civilisations in the world. I know there are many in Iran who understand the unjustness of this situation. No government should use innocent individuals as pawns for diplomatic leverage so I call on Iran to release this innocent woman so she can be reunited with her family. ‘

This year Mrs  Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s six-year-old daughter Gabriella wrote a card to Boris Johnson, asking him to bring home her mother before her 42nd birthday on Boxing Day

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard told BBC Radio 4’s Today show at the time: ‘It changes the status for Nazanin’s case.  Now it’s also the British Government’s case and all the injustices that happen to Nazanin are effectively injustices against the British Government.’    

Suggesting the move might provide ‘a route to solving this case’, Mr Ratcliffe added: ‘Probably the first things are to get a doctor in, then we’ve talked about doing stuff at the UN, then maybe summoning the ambassador.

‘You can’t jump straight into legal action, there are a whole series of things that legally you need to do first before you are entitled to, and that’s months away. Hopefully we are not months away from a solution.’    

Mr Ratcliffe has previously said his wife was told by judges in court that her case related to an unpaid £400 million debt the UK owes to Iran in relation to the purchase of Chieftain tanks in the 1970s. 

Last week Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s daughter Gabriella said she wanted ‘mummy home for Christmas’ in a written card to Boris Johnson.

The six-year-old asked the prime minister: ‘Dear Boris Johnson, please can you bring my mummy home for Christmas. She has been good.

‘When she comes back I want to cuddle her first and then go to the toy shop with her. Merry Christmas to you and your family. Love Gabriella. xxx’  

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