Daren Nair: Amnesty activist reflects on 15-day hunger strike by Richard Ratcliffe, husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe
- Credit: Archant
Human rights campaigner Daren Nair was with Richard Ratcliffe every day of his hunger strike in June. With his wife Nazanin now released from the Iranian mental health ward to which she was temporarily admitted following her own simultaneous hunger strike, Daren looks back at the experience.
In June, Richard and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from West Hampstead both went on hunger strike for 15 days to protest her wrongful imprisonment in Iran since April 2016.
I had the privilege of watching over Richard - helping him, ensuring his safety and keeping him company.
As an activist for Amnesty International, I've been campaigning with Richard for three years. He contacted me a week before the hunger strike asking if I was willing to camp outside the Iranian Embassy with him. He wanted at least one person by his side in case there was trouble. I agreed and camped out with him the first night of his hunger strike.
Day one was Saturday, June 15. We celebrated Gabriella's 5th birthday outside the Iranian Embassy with Richard's family. The Ratcliffes are a close-knit loving family. They've been the main support system for Richard throughout this injustice. His parents were there every day during the hunger strike and, like me, Richard's siblings camped out with him. Rebecca Jones, Richard's sister, is a doctor and made sure he had his daily dosage of multivitamin, thiamine and electrolyte replacement tablets.
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Officers from the Metropolitan Police Diplomatic Protection Group visited us every two hours. They respected our right to protest and offered to check up on Richard's health and bring him water. The officers even let the children play with the flashing lights in their patrol car. "As long as you don't stand on the embassy steps, touch the railings or block the pavement, you'll be fine," they told us. We complied.
By the time it got dark on day one, it was just Richard and me. We had one tent, two sleeping bags, three chairs, many bottles of water and backpacks each with a change of clothes and toiletries. Our options for toilets were the local café in the park across the road, the park itself or an empty water bottle. We went to bed at 2am and Richard fell asleep immediately.
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I didn't get any sleep that night. I could feel the coldness of the pavement through my clothes, sleeping bag and the mat we had in our tent. I could hear the loud vehicles on the highway and I got nervous every time someone walked past our tent. I got up at 5.15 am and waited an hour for the closest Starbucks to open so I could brush my teeth and have my breakfast. Richard woke up at 6.30am and immediately started doing live interviews on the BBC. At 8am, he went over to the local café to have a shower. Richard continued this routine for another 14 days. By day 15, there would be three tents - each with thicker sleeping mats, ear plugs and a pass to a nearby 24-hour library used for toilet runs.
What was extraordinary during the hunger strike was the kindness of people who came to support Richard. Edward, who owns La Creperie de Hampstead, showed up every evening with bottles of water and mint tea.
Christine from Enfield brought origami flowers for Gabriella and came back every day to help out in any way needed - so did Albert from Chelsea and Edith from Leamington Spa. Bruce from the US brought his own tent to keep Richard company at night.
Dedicated campaigners Linda Grove from Hampstead and Stephen Quentin from Stafford showed up almost every day.
Richard's classmates from Edinburgh University brought sleeping mats, phone chargers and hot water bottles. His friends from secondary school camped out with him for a few nights.
For the first time in decades, the Iranian Embassy became a safer space for Iranians living in Britain. Many showed up to support Richard. Some were former political prisoners themselves. "Listen, you'll get over this. I've been through this and look now," said one of them to Richard. Another brought a Paddington Bear for Gabriella; others came back every day. Their names aren't mentioned here for their own safety but we are grateful.
Throughout the hunger strike, Richard was visited by over 100 politicians from almost every party. Penny Mordaunt was the highest ranking minister in government to visit Richard. During heightened tensions with Iran, the defence secretary's message to Richard was: "We will stand with you for as long as it takes." Members of the shadow cabinet - Jeremy Corbyn, Tom Watson and Emily Thornberry - echoed this message. Sadiq Khan showed up too, saying: "Londoners stand united with Nazanin."
Richard and Nazanin both ended their hunger strikes on day 15. Richard was immediately taken to A&E at the Royal Free to recover. Nazanin remains unjustly imprisoned in Iran to this day.
No matter how long it takes, no matter what the Iranian authorities do to this innocent family, we'll be right there by their side until Nazanin and Gabriella are back home with Richard in West Hampstead.