Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: I was held captive… I sense the pain of Hamas hostages

The latest Jewish News

Read this week’s digital edition

Click Here

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: I was held captive… I sense the pain of Hamas hostages

Held hostage by the Iranian government for six years, Teheran-born Nazanin speaks to the Jewish community at Hampstead synagogue

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Richard Ratcliffe, his emotional wife Nazanin Zaghari-Ratfcliffe, and Hampstead Synagogue’s Rabbi Michael Harris.
Richard Ratcliffe, his emotional wife Nazanin Zaghari-Ratfcliffe, and Hampstead Synagogue’s Rabbi Michael Harris.

“I’m ok, I’m free.” There could not have been any more poignant words spoken as the Israel-Hamas hostage deal continues to lead the world’s news agenda.

But these words hid a world of pain — and gratitude. The speaker was Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, held hostage by the Iranian government for six years. She and her husband Richard Ratcliffe, who campaigned for her, were the guests at an often emotional evening at Hampstead Synagogue, in conversation with Rabbi Michael Harris.

A packed audience, many of whom had supported Nazanin during her long incarceration, warmly applauded the couple, who brought with them their daughter Gabriella — who had been her mother’s mainstay in prison, until the Ratcliffes took the difficult decision to return her to Britain to attend school and live with her father.

Nazanin, after a long period of “will they, won’t they” on the part of the Iranian regime, was finally released in March 2022. “When I came back, it was at the beginning of the Ukraine-Russia war — and then Covid — and then the start of the uprising of Iranian women — the world was a different place. The world that I left when I went to Tehran and then entered prison, was very different to the world that I was released to.”

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratfcliffe, and Hampstead Synagogue’s Rabbi Michael Harris.

In frank remarks, both Nazanin and her husband spoke of their very different experiences while she was in prison, serving time after a summary arrest accusing her of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government. The Teheran-born Nazanin had been arrested with her then 22-month-old daughter as they had travelled to Iran to celebrate the Iranian new year with her parents.

At the time of her arrest, she had been working for four years as a project co-ordinator for the Thomson-Reuters Foundation, in charge of grants applications and training.

Acknowledging the most recent news about the Israeli hostages in Gaza, Nazanin said: “Being in prison has made me very much aware of people’s pain”. It was not something at the forefront of her busy life as a working mother before her arrest and time in prison, she admitted.

Since coming home and trying to re-adjust to “normal” life, she has found the degree of attention paid to her by the local community both “very humbling and very daunting”.

Richard Ratcliffe, his emotional wife Nazanin Zaghari-Ratfcliffe, and Hampstead Synagogue’s Rabbi Michael Harris.

She described how a 14- minute walk to the tube or train station near her home would often take up to two hours, as people stopped her in the street to talk and congratulate her on her release. “People were very kind, they were amazing and so supportive. Some would give me a hug, some would give me flowers. It shows how my story reached the heart of every individual, especially in this area”.

Even today, more than a year after her release, she still gets recognised in the street. “That is a privilege, because there are so many people in the world who are captives and people don’t know their names or their story. So I am grateful for that”.

Richard Ratcliffe, who spent 21 days on hunger strike outside the Foreign Office during his campaign to free his wife, observed: “It takes time to return to normal”. Paying tribute to members of the audience who had supported the campaign, he said: “There is something about people crying with you during the most difficult times. It’s not been plain sailing, but it’s nice to have people celebrate with us now.”

Nazanin was asked about her time in prison, which she said was often a place of “great sadness, separation and cruelty”. But she spoke of a Bahai friend whom she met in prison, who told her that when she eventually went home, she would realise “how strong you were and how prison had been an amazing life experience”. At the time, she said, she did not understand what her friend meant.

“But when I got home, I realised she had a point. Being in prison is a very interesting experience to get to know the way people live in suffering. The solidarity, how people survive”.

In the prison in which Nazanin served time, “98 per cent of the women were innocent. They had done nothing wrong — except that what they were doing was wrong in the eyes of the government. But it was quite a remarkable experience, to meet people I would never have met in my previous life, to share with them happiness and the pain we were all going through”.

Nazanin’s prison time included eight and a half months of solitary confinement. “That was total isolation”. But then she was returned to a general ward and formed close bonds with other prisoners.

Now that she looks back, she said, “it made me a better person.” She had her family supporting her, she had Richard campaigning for her. When she was temporarily released in 2020 her husband told her “the whole nation is behind you”. That had a powerful impact on her, she said, adding, “it was an incredible experience, in a very strange way”.

Nazanin’s prison time included eight and a half months of solitary confinement. “That was total isolation”. But then she was returned to a general ward and formed close bonds with other prisoners.

Richard Ratcliffe admitted that it had been “a long old battle” in his campaign to free his wife, and said that he had perhaps been “naive” at the beginning in his dealings with British government ministers and civil servants. But, he said, “it was a learning curve for me how reluctant the government was to step in”. He also said, however, that “Nazanin did not come home because of our campaign, she came home because of people who listened.”

During his hunger strike outside the Foreign Office there had been initial “euphoria” as his body adjusted to the deprivation of food; but there had also been numerous visitors, and his protest had turned into a “monument of loving kindness…. it was a profound experience in just how much people can reach out and support you”.

In words that clearly struck a chord with the audience, Nazanin said: “As a hostage your arrest is not in your hands. At the end it was very clear, I hadn’t done anything wrong, but I was just a pawn between two governments”.

Richard Ratcliffe observed that hostage taking, as a diplomatic tool, had grown in recent years, “and that is deeply problematic. If, as a government, you are taking hostages, it might be a sign that the government is on its last legs. Those are the tactics of a criminal gang — and the tactics of an unsavoury criminal gang. Not all criminal gangs will do this”.

He said that he had warned Britain that hostage taking was likely to become normalised as rogue governments and groups found it was the only lever that worked in obtaining their demands.

Support your Jewish community. Support your Jewish News

Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.

For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.

Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.

You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.

100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...


Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.


There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.


In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.


Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish Newsalso produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.

Easy access

In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.

Voice of our community to wider society

The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.

We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.

read more: