Iran Has Said British Mother Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe Will Not Be Released Early

Iran's justice ministry confirmed on Friday (December 22) that authorities have opened a new case against British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been sentenced to five years in jail, and denied she might soon be released.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested in April 2016 at a Tehran airport as she was heading back to Britain with her two-year-old daughter, Gabriella, after a family visit.

She was convicted of plotting to overthrow Iran's clerical establishment, a charge denied by her family and the Foundation, a charity organization that is independent of Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

British foreign minister Boris Johnson traveled to Iran this month to lobby for her release.

"Iran's judiciary cannot confirm any of the claims in Western media about this case," the head of the justice department in Tehran province, Gholamhossein Esmaili, was quoted as saying by the semi-official Tasnim news agency on Friday.

"When a decision is made, it will be announced by the Islamic Republic's judiciary or through diplomatic channels," he said.

Tasnim said he specifically denied reports of a swap deal, but did not make clear what reports he was referring to.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe's husband, Richard, told Newsweek "he was definitely more hopeful" after learning that his wife could be eligible for an early release following a meeting with her lawyer.

Following Friday's reports, he told Newsweek: "My understanding is that the judiciary system is still showing [that] Nazanin as eligible for early release.

"These comments were reported by the news agency belonging to the Revolutionary Guard, who were the ones that took Nazanin originally. We have seen no evidence of a new court case - it was closed last week."

The release of dual national prisoners in Iran in recent years has been mainly done through prisoner swaps.

Iran refuses to recognize dual nationals and denies them access to consular assistance. It has arrested at least 30 dual nationals during the past two years, mostly on spying charges.

"Besides serving her current sentence, she has also another ongoing case against her in court... We do not know if she would be found guilty or not," Esmaili said.

His comments mark the first time a justice ministry official has acknowledged that a new case has been brought against Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Her family said in October that the new case carried charges that could bring mean another 16 years in prison.

The new charges included joining and receiving money from organizations working to overthrow the Islamic Republic and attending a demonstration outside the Iranian Embassy in London, the family said.

Iran tried to apply fresh charges against Zaghari-Ratcliffe, after Johnson incorrectly stated at the beginning of November that Nazanin was in Iran in a working capacity, training journalists. Both TRF and Richard have always maintained that she was on holiday at the time of her arrest, a central part of her defense.

Johnson, who faced mounting pressure to step down following his gaffe, has retracted his remarks since, but Iran is still using them against Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

During an interview with Newsweek earlier this month, Richard called on the Foreign Secretary to bring his wife back home for Christmas.

"My message to the U.K. government and Boris Johnson is: Please make it really clear that Nazanin is a British citizens and she needs to be home with her family. Please find a way to get her home for Christmas," he said.

"Christmas is a time of family and reunification. Iran has a proud humanitarian tradition in the way it releases prisoners and it would just be great for me, for Nazanin, for my daughter, if she just could be allowed to come home this Christmas."

Gabriella, now three-and-a-half years old, has not been able to return to the U.K. since her mother's arrest. She has been living with her grandparents in Tehran.

Amnesty International, which has been calling for the woman's release, said in a statement: "Being 'eligible' for release when you shouldn't even be in prison in the first place is a bizarre thing to be celebrating, but we have to welcome this as a sign that Nazanin's ordeal may be coming to an end.

"There have already been many ups and downs in Nazanin's case, so we have to be cautious about any premature celebrations.

"As far as we're concerned, this won't end until Nazanin and Gabriella are actually on a plane and heading back to London."