Iran charges detained French tourist with espionage, lawyer says

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Iran has charged a French tourist with spying and “spreading propaganda against the system”, his lawyer said Monday, the latest in a series of cases against foreigners at a time of heightened tensions between Iran and the West.

Benjamin Brière was arrested 10 months ago after taking pictures in a desert area where photography is prohibited and asking questions “in the media” about Iran's obligatory Islamic headscarf for women, his lawyer Saeed Dehghan wrote on Twitter.

Authorities were holding Brière at a prison in the northeastern city of Mashhad, Dehghan said. Prosecutors recently presented the propaganda charges in a court hearing, he added, without specifying when.

Brière "is in good health [and] has access to his lawyers," Dehghan said, adding that "French embassy officials are in regular contact with him."

There was no immediate confirmation of the charges from Iranian officials. Under Iranian law, a spying conviction can lead to up to 10 years in prison.

The Frenchman is the latest Westerner to be held on widely criticised espionage charges. On Sunday, prominent British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe reappeared in a Tehran court to face similar accusations of spreading propaganda after completing her full five-year prison sentence. She remains in limbo in Iran awaiting the verdict, unable to fly home to London.

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The cases come as Iran escalates pressure on the United States and European powers, including France and Britain, to restore the badly needed sanctions relief the country received under its tattered nuclear accord with world powers.

Former US president Donald Trump abandoned the landmark nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and reimposed harsh sanctions on the country. His successor Joe Biden has offered to join in talks toward restoring the deal, but Washington and Tehran have reached an impasse, with each insisting the other move first to revive the deal.

Rights groups accuse hard-liners in Iran’s security agencies of using foreign detainees as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West. Tehran denies it, but there have been such prisoner exchanges in the past.

Last March, for instance, Iran and France swapped French researcher Roland Marchal for Iranian engineer Jalal Ruhollahnejad.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)