Professor Carla Ferstman is a lawyer and an activist. Before joining the School of Law in 2018, she directed REDRESS, an organization dedicated to helping torture survivors in all parts of the world to seek justice for all the harm they suffered. That is where she first met Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe who was released earlier this week on 15 March 2022 after almost six years of being kept as a hostage in Iran. I spoke to Carla to find out more about her perspective on Nazanin’s journey to freedom and to ask her what lessons we might be able to draw from her case.

Why has the plight of Nazanin and her family resonated with so many people in the UK and beyond?

On a human level, it is hard to fathom what it must feel like to have one’s family torn apart by such an arbitrary, brutal act and to feel so powerless over so many years. So this was about compassion first of all. But also, Richard’s advocacy, his unwillingness to be quieted in the face of the injustice he and Nazanin faced helped to bring and keep people on board.

Do you think there were any turning points in the campaign?

Yes, several, and I will focus on the positive ones.

First, is the recognition by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that Nazanin’s detention was arbitrary, that she was likely to have been arrested because of her status as a dual Iranian-British national, and that she should be immediately released. This 2016 decision made it clear that this was no ordinary criminal case where the UK should sit back and wait for justice to take its course. No, Nazanin was being targeted. Removing the veneer of a criminal justice justification for her detention was really important because it helped to move the UK Government towards a position where it understood that it had to act. Passivity was not an option.

Second, was the coming together of many of the families of detainees, mainly dual nationals and Iranian nationals with foreign links. This was crucial to change the narrative about what was happening. All the stories were so similar – this was a form of hostage-taking. It was also important to counter isolation and build a sense of common solidarity. 

Third, was the 2019 decision by then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to grant Nazanin diplomatic protection, meaning that the UK Government had recognised formally that the harm caused to Nazanin was a harm to the UK Government and one for which it could intervene as a state to state claim. This was a landmark recognition.

Fourth, was the March 2022 repayment by the UK of a £400m debt that had been outstanding since the 1970s in relation to an outstanding order for military equipment.

You managed to involve Essex students in the campaign. How did this go?

Iran’s human rights record was being considered by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva through its universal periodic review process. The students, under the auspices of the Human Rights Centre Clinic helped prepare a submission on behalf of seven families to highlight the injustice of their situation. This came at a really important time and was a start of much more robust joint advocacy by families of detainees. This was quite a unique opportunity for the students to work on such a concrete, live case involving real people undergoing serious human rights violations in real-time.

Have campaigns like this impacted your academic research?

Indeed, I just recently co-authored with my colleague Dr Marina Sharpe a journal article which considers whether the arbitrary detention of dual and foreign nationals in Iran violates the Convention on the Taking of Hostages and may constitute a crime against humanity. We hope this will be useful to ongoing scholarly debates and also assist the many organisations who are following these issues and governments whose citizens continue to be affected by the practise.

What do you think comes next for Nazanin and Richard?

One of the wonderful things about the freedom they now have is that it is absolutely for them to figure out their next steps. Something we may all take for granted, I imagine for them feels very luxurious.

What next for the other cases?

There are still so many people who remain arbitrarily detained in Iran in a hostage context, many for multiple years, under very difficult circumstances. And the practise is also happening in more and more countries. The advocacy must continue until the practise stops.