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Iranian-British national ends 5-year sentence in spy case

A British-Iranian woman held in an Iranian prison for five years on widely refuted spying charges ended her sentence on Sunday, her lawyer said, although she faces a new trial and cannot yet return home.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was able to remove her ankle bracelet for the first time since she was released from prison on furlough last March because of the surging coronavirus pandemic, the lawyer said. She has been under house arrest at her parent’s home in the capital of Tehran since.

Iranian state-run media on Sunday that she has been summoned to court again on March 13 over murky new charges, including “spreading propaganda," which were first announced last fall.

Her long-running case, playing out against the backdrop of a decades-old debt dispute between Britain and Iran, has strained diplomatic ties between the countries and sparked international outrage.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Sunday welcomed the removal of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s ankle tag but called for her to be allowed to return home.

“Iran’s continued treatment of her is intolerable,” he said on Twitter. “She must be allowed to return to the UK as soon as possible to be reunited with her family.”

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 42, was sentenced to five years in jail after being convicted of plotting to overthrow Iran’s government, a charge that she, her supporters and rights groups vigorously deny. She was taken into custody at the airport with her toddler daughter after visiting family on holiday in the capital of Tehran in 2016. At the time, she was working for Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency.

The latest setback in Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case comes as Britain and Iran negotiate a spat over a debt of some 400 million pounds ($530 million) owed to Iran by London, a payment the late Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi made for Chieftain tanks that were never delivered. The shah abandoned the throne in 1979 and the Islamic Revolution installed the clerically overseen system that endures today.

Richard Ratcliffe, who for years has campaigned vocally for his wife’s release, has said that Iran was holding Zaghari-Ratcliffe as “collateral” in the dispute. Authorities in London and Tehran deny that Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case is linked to the repayment deal. But a prisoner exchange that freed four American citizens in 2016 saw the U.S. pay a similar sum to Iran the same day of their release.

REDRESS, which has been advocating on behalf of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her husband, lamented the new court date, criticizing the new case as “not supported by evidence.”

“Despite having finished her sentence, Nazanin is now being threatened with further charges and more years separated from her husband and daughter,” said Rupert Skilbeck, the group's director.

In what the U.N. has criticized as an “emerging pattern,” Iran has frequently arrested dual citizens in recent years, often using their cases as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West, something Tehran denies.

Several other dual nationals, including at least one other British citizen and three Americans, remain in prison. Iran refuses to recognize dual nationality, so detainees like Zaghari-Ratcliffe cannot receive consular assistance.

U.K. lawmaker Tulip Siddiq, who represents Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s London district and has been in touch with her family, confirmed the new court date. In the meantime, she said, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s first trip after house arrest will be to see her grandmother.