Benjamin Brière, a French tourist whom Iran accuses of espionage, appeared this Thursday before a Revolutionary Court in the city of Mashhad, in the east of the country. Brière, who has been imprisoned for nearly 20 months, is among the 20 or so foreign detainees that rights organizations say Tehran intends to use as a bargaining chip in its relations with the West.
The trial of Brière, 36, has been held behind closed doors, but has been recorded on video, as revealed by one of his lawyers, Saeid Dehghan. The lawyer has declared to EL PAÍS that he does not believe that there will be another session and that he awaits the sentence for next week. He has also expressed concern that the judge used the word “exchange” during the hearing. In his opinion, that means “prisoner exchange.”
Iran has resorted to that formula in the past. The last known case was in June 2020 when he managed to get the United States to release the Iranian-American scientist Majid Taherí, accused of violating sanctions against the Asian country, in exchange for the return home of United States Navy veteran Michael White. But there is no record of any Iranian citizen being imprisoned in France today.
Iranian police arrested Brière in May 2020 when he was flying a small camera drone (helicam) in a desert area near the border with Turkmenistan, although the authorities did not make it public until February of the following year. A month later, he was charged with “espionage and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”
Dehghan then explained that the espionage charge was based on the fact that “he was taking photos in prohibited areas” and the propaganda charge on the fact that he had raised on his social networks “the question of why the hiyab it is mandatory in the Islamic Republic, but optional in other Islamic countries.” The lawyer also released an image of Brière and the motorhome in which he was traveling through Iran.
Brière’s arrest added to that of a score of foreign citizens or dual nationals who are trapped in the Iranian judicial system on charges that human rights activists dispute. Among them is also the French-Iranian anthropologist Fariba Adelkhah, sentenced to six years in prison in May 2020 for accusations related to national security.
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Shortly after, due to her state of health, Adelkhah, 62, who Dehghan also defends, was authorized to serve that sentence in her apartment in Tehran controlled with an electronic bracelet. However, last week, the judiciary again ordered his imprisonment for “violating the conditions of house arrest.”
Brière’s trial and Adelkhah’s return to prison come as Iran negotiates with major powers in Vienna to return the United States to the 2015 nuclear deal. Some analysts say this is no coincidence. “It’s a way of putting pressure on France,” estimates an Iranian journalist who follows the process. “Tehran considers that the French are not cooperating in the negotiations, that they represent Israel’s point of view,” he adds.
In a gesture that underscores the political nature of these arrests, former US hostage Barry Rosen has launched a hunger strike in Vienna this week to call for the release of all foreign and binational detainees held by Iran. “They are human beings, not pieces of a game. His freedom should precede any agreement we make with a regime that is not trustworthy, “he says on his Twitter account.
I am starting a hunger strike this week in Vienna, 41 years after my release, to demand the release of all hostages being held by #Iran. They are human beings, not bargaining chips. Their freedom should come before we make any deals with an untrustworthy regime. #FreeTheHostages pic.twitter.com/zKqhcKJ7uk
— Barry Rosen (@brosen1501) January 17, 2022
Rosen, 77, was one of 52 kidnapped by Iranian revolutionaries during their takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran 42 years ago. The then press advisor has been campaigning for some time so that those he also considers hostages are not forgotten. The US special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, assured him during a visit on Wednesday that the matter has his full attention and urged him to end his strike.
Malley has made several calls for the release of Iranian and US passport holders. But Iran, which does not recognize dual nationality, counters that this is interference in the judicial affairs of the Islamic Republic.
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