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UK delaying release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe over fears of offending Trump: Report

Lawyers accuse UK government of delaying steps for securing British Iranian's release, including not delivering a $525m debt repayment
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is serving a five-year sentence for espionage, a charge she has consistently denied (AFP/family handout)

The UK government has deliberately delayed taking action to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from an Iranian prison to avoid offending US President Donald Trump, lawyers acting for the British-Iranian aid worker have said.

The lawyers sent a seven-page letter, obtained by The Guardian, to the UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace, saying the UK was dragging its feet on repaying a £400 million debt ($525m) owed by Britain to Iran - a major step towards guaranteeing her freedom.

The lawyers said the British government had "plainly failed to engage in constructive dialogue with Tehran" and also asked for a meeting with Wallace at the "earliest convenience".

'The message appears to be that the safety of British citizens abroad is subordinate to falling in line with US policy'

- Letter from Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's lawyers

The letter also said a decision to delay the next high court hearing on the debt until the day after the US presidential election on 3 November, "in effect plays politics with the lives of British citizens".

"The message appears to be that the safety of British citizens abroad is subordinate to falling in line with US policy," the letter reads.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an aid worker, is serving a five-year sentence in Iran for espionage, a charge she has consistently denied. She was arrested in 2016 as she was leaving Iran after taking her then 22-month-old daughter to visit family.

She has moved from prison to house arrest since March, over fears of the spread of the novel coronavirus in Tehran's prison system.

Iran-UK arms deal

Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, has also claimed that the UK government has delayed her release over its failure to settle the debt, which relates to an arms deal with the late Shah of Iran.

In 1971, the International Military Services (IMS), a government agency, signed contracts to sell more than 1,500 Chieftain tanks and armoured vehicles to the Shah of Iran.

The military equipment remained undelivered for years, and the contracts were eventually cancelled after the shah was deposed in the 1979 revolution. Still, Iran has demanded the money be returned after already having paid for the tanks.

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The lawyers added that it is surprising that the IMS "continues to raise every possible legal objection to payment of the debt and has plainly failed to engage in constructive dialogue with Tehran".

While the British government continues to delay the process of returning Zaghari-Ratcliffe, her lawyers argue that Tehran is continuing to arrest family members of prisoners and obtain confessions through torture.

"It is important that the UK both honours its legally owed obligations to Iran, but also calls out the Iranian government on its illegal treatment of Nazanin under Iranian law," the letter reads.

"However, the UK government has done precisely the opposite: obtusely refusing to discharge its legal obligations, whilst remaining silent and appeasing Iran in the face of Tehran's atrocious abuse of Nazanin's human rights."