Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori return to UK after years in Iran prisons: Who are they and why were they arrested?

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Charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and retired civil engineer Anoosheh Ashoori returned home to the United Kingdom (UK) on Thursday after being freed from years of Iranian detention.

As per an Associated Press report, Ashoori made a peace sign to journalists as the pair walked side-by-side from the runway to a building at the Brize Norton air force base in Oxfordshire where the government-chartered aircraft carrying them had landed after their release in Iran on Wednesday.

Their release, which was announced on Wednesday, came after months of negotiations between the British and Iranian governments.

British MP Tulip Siddiq of the Labour Party had taken to Twitter on Wednesday to announce the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman who was detained in Iran in 2016 on charges of spying and plotting to overthrow the government in Iran.

Who is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori?

The now 44-year-old Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was born in Tehran. Before her arrest, Zaghari, who has dual British and Iranian citizenship, lived in Hampstead in London with her husband Richard Ratcliffe, an accountant, and their daughter.

She worked as a project manager for the charity Thomson Reuters Foundation and was previously employed by BBC Media Action, an international development charity.

On 3 April 2016, members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard arrested Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe at Imam Khomeini Airport as she and her daughter were about to board a flight back to the UK. AP

According to reported information, Zaghari-Ratcliffe had worked for multiple charity organisations including the Japanese International Co-operation Agency, International Federation of Red Cross, Red Crescent Societies and World Health Organization (WHO) before coming to the UK on scholarship to study Communication Management at London Metropolitan University.

Nazanin’s husband Richard described her as a very house-proud, meticulous and tidy, and said she has a “pretty keen sense of justice”, as per a report in The Guardian.

Anoosheh Ashoori is a British-Iranian businessman. He spent 10 years in the UK from 1972, while he studied mechanical and aeronautical engineering, before returning to Iran to take care of his ailing father. He returned to the UK in 2005 to expand his business abroad.

Why were they arrested?

On 17 March 2016, Zaghari-Ratcliffe travelled to Iran to visit family for Iranian New Year with Gabriella, then nearly two years old. On 3 April 2016, members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard arrested her at Imam Khomeini Airport as she and her daughter were about to board a flight back to the UK.

In Ashoori's case, he was arrested in August 2017, when he visited his mother.

Iranian authorities alleged Zaghari-Ratcliffe was plotting to topple the government in Tehran — but no official charges were made public.

Iran's Revolutionary Guards said she was leading a "foreign-linked hostile network" when she visited.

BBC Media Action and Thomson Reuters Foundation have also said Zaghari-Ratcliffe was not working, but was on a holiday in Iran.

In November 2016, she was sentenced to five years in jail — she spent four in Evin Prison in Tehran and one under house arrest at her parents’ house.

It has been alleged that Iranian authorities tortured her while she was in prison. One of the family's allegations has been that she was held because of a multi-million pound debt owed by the United Kingdom to Iran.

In April 2021, she was sentenced to an additional year of in jail and was banned from leaving Iran on charges of spreading propaganda against the country’s government.

Aryan Ashoori, Sherry Izadi and Elika Ashoori, the son, wife and daughter of Anoosheh Ashoori, have been demanding for his release for years and even alleged that he had been tortured by Iranian authorities. AP

As far as Ashoori was concerned, he was awarded 12 years in prison — 10 years for ‘spying for Israel’s Mossad’ and another two years for ‘acquiring illegitimate wealth’.

According to Amnesty International UK, Ashoori was "subjected to torture, repeatedly interrogated without a lawyer present, and forced to sign ‘confessions’ while sleep-deprived".

It described the prison conditions he was in as "overcrowded and unhygienic".

UK’s negotiations bear fruit

Successive foreign secretaries led unsuccessful efforts to secure their release from Iran.

British foreign secretary Liz Truss told lawmakers that the change of government in Iran last summer had been instrumental in moving the talks forward.

“I was able to reset the relationship, to be clear that we were serious about resolving the outstanding issues that Iran had, and they were clear they were serious about resolving the outstanding issues we had,” Truss said in the House of Commons.

Extensive diplomacy secured the release of the dual nationals and led to agreement to repay the debt in a way that complies with UK and international sanctions.

Britain agreed to pay Iran £393.8 million ($515.5 million), which can only be used for humanitarian purposes. The British government declined to offer details of the arrangement.

With inputs from agencies

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Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori return to UK after years in Iran prisons: Who are they and why were they arrested?
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori return to UK after years in Iran prisons: Who are they and why were they arrested?
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