British citizens imprisoned abroad should have a legal right to consular protection, families of detainees including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Matthew Hedges have said.
Consular protection is offered on a discretionary basis but the newly formed British Rights Abroad Group says the Foreign Office should have a duty to provide assistance in all cases.
In a letter to Boris Johnson, the families say more than 2,000 British citizens are being held overseas, about 1,000 of whom are being held without trial. Many of them have been mistreated or in extreme cases tortured, they say.
“It should not be the choice of the foreign secretary to act to protect a British citizen abroad but rather the obligation,” they write, urging the prime minister to “correct past mistakes and fight for the rights and protections due to all British citizens.”.
The group says even when diplomatic assistance is provided, it can be inconsistent.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested at Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran in April 2016 and accused of spying, an allegation she denies. The Iranian-British dual national remains in prison in the Iranian capital after being sentenced to five years in jail in September 2016.
Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, said: “For me, this is about the meaning of a British passport, and that when it really matters the government should have your back.
“Protecting people from torture and arbitrary imprisonment should not be discretionary, but the government’s first task. That is why we’re joining the campaign to change the law.”
Johnson has faced criticism for his role in the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe. To her family’s consternation, Johnson, while foreign secretary, said Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been teaching journalism in Tehran.
However, Zaghari-Ratcliffe says she was in Iran to visit her family and her account was backed by her employer, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, a charity organisation that operates independently of Thomson Reuters and Reuters News.
Matthew Hedges was pardoned last year after seven months in jail in the UAE, having been sentenced to life in prison for spying,
His wife, Daniela Tejada, said: “After the nightmare I experienced last year, I want to know that the British government will stand for human rights unconditionally.
“One day I will be the mother of a British child and I want to know that no other Briton will have to go through the months of agony that my husband and I did when he was unfairly detained and tortured abroad last year.”
The other relatives who make up the British Rights Abroad Group are the families of Jagtar Singh Johal, who has been detained in India for 22 months, Andy Tsege, who was detained in Ethiopia for almost four years before being released last year, and Billy Irving, who was released in 2017 after almost five years imprisoned in India.
Together they have launched a petition urging MPs and political parties to make consular protection a manifesto commitment and ultimately enshrine it in law.
Families of UK citizens held abroad call for consular protection – The Guardian