UK PM Boris Johnson urged to be ‘tougher’ on Iran

Richard Ratcliffe (R) urged Boris Johnson to make sure the UK is “tougher” with the regime, while pushing for the release of his detained wife. (Reuters/File Photo)
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Updated 25 January 2020

UK PM Boris Johnson urged to be ‘tougher’ on Iran

  • Richard Ratcliffe says his jailed wife is ‘being held hostage’ by Tehran
  • Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained in 2016 and sentenced to five years in prison

LONDON: The husband of a British-Iranian woman jailed by Tehran over charges of espionage has urged the UK to be “tougher” with the regime.

Richard Ratcliffe made the comments after a meeting with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London on Thursday. 

Ratcliffe said there had been “no breakthrough” in discussions between the two nations to secure her release, and his wife was being used as a “chess piece” by Iran. 

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained in 2016 and sentenced to five years in prison for “plotting to topple the Iranian government.” She and her family maintain that she was in the country to visit relatives.Speaking outside the prime minister’s residence in Downing Street, Ratcliffe told reporters that the meeting had been warm in nature, but hinted that the government was not doing enough.

“The prime minister was there, the foreign secretary was there, (we) talked quite openly about having tried a number of different things to get Nazanin home,” he said. 

“We pressed him (Johnson) to be brave. I want him to push forward on improving relations. You need to be imposing a cost on Iran for holding innocent people as leverage, you’ve got to be brave there as well. The government doesn’t always say it, but in my view, Nazanin is being held hostage.”

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office was not immediately available for comment when contacted by Arab News.

The Downing Street meeting comes ahead of an impending court case over a long-term trade dispute between the UK and Iran, with London accused of owing Tehran debts over an arms deal from the 1970s.

Labour Party MP Tulip Siddiq, who represents the parliamentary seat of Hampstead and Kilburn, where Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family live, called on the government to settle the debt in order to help facilitate her release.

But MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, told the BBC that the issue was “extraordinarily difficult.” 

He suggested that setting a precedent of capitulating on legal disputes in return for the release of UK nationals could entice foreign governments and groups to threaten other UK citizens abroad. “The risk that would pose to British citizens traveling abroad would be very considerable,” he said.

Johnson was blamed by many in 2017, when he was foreign secretary, for having worsened Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s situation in Iran when, in a statement to the House of Commons, he claimed that he had been briefed that she was in Tehran training journalists. 

Despite claims from other politicians, her family and her employer, the Thompson Reuters Foundation, that he had been misinformed, the statement was subsequently used as evidence against her in court.


Pakistan braced for double blow of coronavirus outbreak

Updated 06 April 2020

Pakistan braced for double blow of coronavirus outbreak

  • Prime Minister Imran Khan is trying at once to prevent a collapse of the economy and contain the spread of the virus
  • Rising curve of infections puts pressure on health system while lockdown measures threaten livelihoods of millions

KARACHI: Just a few days after he had returned from a visit to Iran, Yahya Jafri, a 22-year-old Pakistani national, became “patient zero” of Pakistan’s now explosive coronavirus outbreak.

Once he was diagnosed as having the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on Feb. 27, his family was moved to Aga Khan Hospital in Karachi, according to Meeran Yousuf, a spokesperson for Sindh province’s Health Department.

Around the same time several other Pakistanis returning from pilgrimage in Iran also tested positive for the virus, prompting authorities to suspend all flights to Iran.

Given the highly infectious nature of COVID-19, the move was perhaps a case of too little too late.

On March 25, Pakistan’s health minister claimed that 78 percent of the country’s total coronavirus patients had a history of travel to Iran.

“Every state defends its own interests first in such times," Umair Muhammad Hasni, a Balochistan government spokesperson, said while announcing the sealing of the border with Iran.

“Returning pilgrims are being pushed by Iran into a buffer zone between the two countries. We just cannot leave those people here.”

Iran has been accused by Gulf countries too of letting pilgrims depart without screening them for COVID-19 infection.

But that is scant comfort for a country of 220 million people reeling from a full-blown outbreak.

Pakistan’s cities have been under a partial lockdown for the past several weeks.

Schools, educational institutions, shopping malls and other usually crowded public places have been shut across the country.

After facing criticism for lacking a unified response to the public-health crisis, the government has extended a nationwide lockdown till April 14.

It has set aside economic concerns for now and suspended flights and business activities in an effort to halt the spread of COVID-19 infections.

Pakistan, like neighbor India, faces an uphill battle in its belated attempt to "flatten the curve” of infections.

As of Sunday, the country had a total of 2,665 active COVID-19 cases, 45 deaths and 170 recoveries.

The government is getting flak for moving too slowly to stop large gatherings when the need of the hour is “social distancing” among other precautionary measures.

But as analysts have pointed out, the political leadership faces a painful choice between protecting public health and preventing an economic meltdown.

With blunt speeches, Prime Minister Khan is seeking to convince Pakistanis of the seriousness of the situation.

Attending a ceremony recently in Lahore, he said about 50-60 million of his compatriots are already below the poverty line and cannot afford to have two meals a day.

"Above these people are 50-60 million others, who are right at the border,” he said.

FASTFACT

NUMBERS

*220 million Pakistan’s population

*2,880 Total coronavirus cases (as of April 4)

*3.04% Official unemployment rate (as of 2018)

*35.1% Share of population living in cities

*5.70% GDP growth rate

“If one misfortune befalls them, they are pushed below the poverty line."

Pakistan was beset with problems ranging from an anemic economy and political dissension to dwindling investment flows when the coronavirus storm hit.

Now the challenge confronting the country is of a completely different order from anything it has dealt with in living memory.

Even the accuracy of the government’s coronavirus data is questioned by many Pakistanis.

Earlier this last week, Faisal Edhi, who heads Pakistan’s biggest charity, Edhi Foundation, accused officials, especially those in the largest province, Punjab, of underreporting COVID-19 cases.

“We are daily burying six to seven people with respiratory (illness) symptoms,” Edhi told Arab News.

A spokesperson of the Punjab health department rejected the charge, adding that COVID-19 deaths were not being concealed.

Edhi estimates that Punjab has 14,000 confirmed cases, a figure several times the number cited by provincial authorities.

As of March 31, according to official data, Punjab and Sindh had tested respectively 15,000 and 7,000 people for the coronavirus infection.

The corresponding figures for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces was 1,711 and 2,113.

Liaquat Shahwani, a Balochistan government spokesperson, said more tests will be conducted once the province receives 1,000 test kits from the federal government.

He said the official request was for 50,000 kits due to the large number of people affected by the outbreak in Balochistan.

Dr Zafar Mirza, the prime minister’s assistant on health issues, has said more than 15,000 people have been tested across the country.

“The country is rapidly increasing its capacity of testing and treatment to cope with the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.

For his part, Asad Umar, Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives, said “our testing capacity” has been increased from 30,000 to 280,000, and will be raised to 900,000 by mid-April.“

Saqib Mumtaz, a spokesman for the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), said Pakistan has got ventilators and protective gears from China, adding that orders had been placed for another 3,000 ventilator units.

The UAE announced through its embassy in Islamabad that it had sent its first batch of medical supplies.

Even as foreign medical assistance begins to arrive, reports of new coronavirus cases are pouring in from across the country.

Each province is now enforcing its own partial or full lockdown in an effort to slow the spread of the deadly virus.

The Sindh government has established isolation centers in 12 different hospitals, having won praise for being the first to announce a lockdown with effect from March 23.

At the same time, it has placed a ban on Friday prayer gatherings for fear of local transmission, which accounts for most of the province’s 830 cases.

A number of quarantine and isolation facilities are also up and running across the country.

Punjab says that in addition to its quarantine capacity for 27,000 people, up to 100,000 patients can be treated in hospitals if the situation deteriorates further.

With “flattening the curve” of infections beyond the realm of imagination, Pakistan’s provincial governments and the national government have their work cut out for them.

In his address in Lahore, Khan said there is no denying that these are difficult times.

"It is difficult because no one has the experience to deal with such a crisis,” he said.

Khan noted that countries with far greater resources, competent institutions and well-funded health systems were reeling from the pandemic’s blow.

“The US has prepared a $2,000bn relief package whereas we can barely manage a $8bn one,” he said, pointing out that despite its resources, there is “a breakdown of (US) systems.”

Khan added: “If this is what can happen to them, our situation was dire to begin with.”