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Outcry as Iran sentences French tourist to 8 years in prison for espionage

Supporters of Benjamin Briere, 36, say he is being used as a pawn for Tehran as it negotiates nuclear pact with France and other Western powers

A woman holds a photo of Benjamin Briere during a rally in Paris, France, on Saturday, January 8, 2022. (AP/Adrienne Surprenant)
A woman holds a photo of Benjamin Briere during a rally in Paris, France, on Saturday, January 8, 2022. (AP/Adrienne Surprenant)

PARIS, France (AFP) — An Iranian court has sentenced a French man to eight years in prison on spying charges, his family and his Paris-based lawyer said on Tuesday, arguing that Tehran was using him as a “hostage” in talks with the West.

Benjamin Briere, 36, is the only Western detainee known to be currently held in Iran who does not also hold an Iranian passport.

He was also given an additional eight-month sentence for propaganda against Iran’s Islamic system, his lawyer Philippe Valent said in a statement.

Briere, who is being held in the Vakilabad jail in the eastern city of Mashhad, was arrested in May 2020 after taking pictures in a national park with a recreational drone and is currently on a hunger strike.

“This verdict is the result of a purely political process and… devoid of any basis,” Valent said.

Calling the trial, which began on Thursday, a “masquerade,” he added that Briere “did not have a fair trial in front of impartial judges” and noted he had not been allowed to access the full indictment against him.

People hold placards during a rally for Benjamin Briere in Paris, France, on Saturday, January 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Adrienne Surprenant)

The French foreign ministry described the verdict as “unacceptable,” saying Briere was merely a “tourist.”

Briere is one of more than a dozen Western citizens held in Iran and described as hostages by activists who say they are innocent of any crime and detained at the behest of the powerful Revolutionary Guards to extract concessions from the West.

The verdict against Briere comes as Iran and world powers are seeking to reach an agreement at talks in Vienna on reviving the 2015 deal over Iran’s nuclear program.

Nationals of all three European powers involved in the talks on the Iranian nuclear program — Britain, France and Germany — are among the foreigners being held.

“It is not tolerable that Benjamin Briere is being held a hostage to negotiations by a regime which keeps a French citizen arbitrarily detained merely to use him as currency in an exchange,” Valent added.

Briere’s sister Blandine told AFP her brother is a “political hostage” subjected to a “parody of justice.”

“It is a political trial and it is useful to Iran, which is sending a message to the French government,” she said.

Valent said Briere was “more and more weakened” by a hunger strike he began at Christmas to protest the lack of progress in his case.

Briton Anoosheh Ashoori, held in Iran for the last four-and-a-half years, also began a hunger strike over the weekend, while Austrian Kamran Ghaderi, held for more than six years, started refusing food on Monday, according to their families.

Barry Rosen, 77, a former US diplomat who was one of the 52 hostages held in Iran during 444 days from 1979 to 1981, speaks to AFP journalists outside the Coburg palace in Vienna, Austria, on January 14, 2022. (Joe Klamar/AFP)

Their action was prompted by a hunger strike begun in Vienna by Barry Rosen, a former United States diplomat and veteran of the 444-day hostage siege of the US embassy in Tehran from 1979-1981, to draw attention to the plight of the detainees. He ended his hunger strike on Sunday to avoid further damage to his health.

Iran is also holding the French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah, who was detained in June 2019 and sentenced to five years in prison in May 2020 on national security charges. In October 2020, she was moved to house arrest but in a surprise development this month Iran jailed her again, saying she had violated house arrest rules.

Iran insists all the foreigners it is holding are tried in line with domestic law, but it has also repeatedly expressed readiness to prisoner swaps.

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