Loved ones fear for Frenchman detained in Iran for 'spying'

·6-min read

Demonstrators gathered in Paris on Saturday to demand the release of Benjamin Brière, a French national who was arrested in Iran in May 2020 and accused of spying. His family denies the accusations and his sister told FRANCE 24 that her brother was being held illegally without a trial.

“We want to show that Benjamin Brière exists, that he’s not just a passive hostage waiting for something to happen,” his sister Blandine Brière, 31, told FRANCE 24. Brière’s loved ones have been consumed with worry and a sense of powerlessness since he was detained in May 2020 near the Turkmenistan-Iran border.

Brière, 36, was on an overland trip across Asia when he was arrested near the Iranian border and accused of spying. His sister however said her brother had not yet had a court hearing. “There is no valid reason to keep him where he is,” said Blandine. “It’s wrongful confinement."

Nearly two years after his arrest, demonstrators gathered for a solidarity protest in Place du Trocadero in Paris to demand Brière’s release.

Brière had been travelling around Iran in a van, hoping to explore the country’s roads as he had done on similar trips around Scandinavia, the Balkans and Turkey. The journey, which he was documenting via Instagram, came to an abrupt halt when he was arrested by Iranian security forces in a deserted zone near the border with Turkmenistan.

They accused him of “taking photos in a prohibited area”, using a recreational drone in a natural park, and of using a social media post to question Iranian laws that make wearing the hijab mandatory for women.

By the time Brière had been escorted to Vakilabad prison in Mashhad, northeast Iran, the accusations had escalated to charges of “spying” and “propaganda” against the Islamic Republic of Iran. If found guilty by Iranian courts, Brière could face years in prison or even the death penalty. Twenty months since his detention, legal procedures have yet to begin.

“His case has never been referred to court. There are just these two accusations that have been communicated to his lawyer,” his sister said.

Brière’s lawyer is Saeid Dehghan, who also represents Fariba Adelkhah, a Franco-Iranian academic detained in Iran since 2019. In a tweet on December 27, 2021 Dehghan wrote, “Why is the revolutionary court in Mashhad waiting to investigate the political accusations against Benjamin Brière, who has now been held for 570 days?”

“We have no case file and no clarity,” his sister said. As far as she is concerned, her brother is “a hostage, held by Iranian authorities”.

'It's traumatic'

“He was just a tourist, and nothing can justify the fact that he has spent so much time in prison for no reason and with so little contact with his family, Brière added.

She hears from her brother around every three weeks, as long as the guards on duty agree to it. “It’s a constant battle,” she said. When he is allowed phone calls, Benjamin’s conversations are recorded and translated into Persian, making it impossible for him to speak openly about the reality of his life in prison.

Sometimes all contact is simply refused. Letters between Benjamin and his loved ones have gone undelivered and when prison authorities refused to let him speak to his family over Christmas and New Year, Benjamin started a hunger strike to protest the conditions of his imprisonment.

“Sometimes they let him have a phone call, sometimes they don’t. There is no one with him that speaks French or English, so he has to fight everyday just to communicate,” Brière said.

Representatives from the French Embassy in Iran have been able to visit Benjamin in prison (under terms agreed in 1963 Vienna Convention) and have confirmed that he shows no signs of physical mistreatment, but his family are worried about his mental health.

For nearly two years he has lived with the fear that he might meet the same fate as other inmates sentenced to death. “He hears and understands what is happening around him. He is living in a terrifying situation, and it’s traumatic,” his sister said.

His family along with lawyer Dehghan have been working with the embassy in Iran and a lawyer in France to try to push the French government to find a diplomatic solution. Last May, Blandine Brière wrote an open letter to President Emmanuel Macron, asking him to “use all possible diplomatic means to ensure [Benjamin’s] release”. It has received no response.

She believes France’s foreign ministry is reluctant to issue an official condemnation. “It is doing what it can within the bounds of what is possible for Benjamin, I know that. It’s just that for us, after 20 months, that isn’t enough.”

'We want to shout as loud as we can'

There are more than a dozen other detainees with Western passports currently imprisoned in Iran, although most hold dual nationality. Benjamin Brière is the only known Western prisoner who does not have an Iranian passport.

NGOs have accused Iran of trapping foreign nationals in its jails as a form of ‘hostage diplomacy’, meaning they can be used as bargaining chips in negotiations with foreign powers. In recent years, Iran has agreed to hostage exchanges with countries including France.

Currently under house arrest, Franco-Iranian Fariba Adelkhah was originally detained in Iran in 2019 and sentenced in May 2020 to five years in prison for attacks on national security. When her French partner, Roland Marchal, visited her in Iran in 2019, he was also arrested and imprisoned.

However, Marchal was released in March 2020, at the same time that France released Iranian engineer Jalal Rohollahnejad, who the US was trying to extradite for violating American sanctions against Iran.

Faced with a situation beyond her control, Blandine Brière is trying to draw increased attention to her brother’s cause. “We want to shout as loud as we can that this is a misunderstanding,” she said, reiterating that Benjamin was in Iran as a tourist, not a spy. “He did use a drone, but we’re talking about a drone he bought online for €100. That doesn’t justify all of this.”

Along with Saturday’s protest at Place du Trocadero she has launched an online petition calling for Benjamin’s freedom which already has more than 45,000 signatures. It begins with a letter, addressed once again to the French president. In it, she repeats her message, and hopes someone will hear: “My brother Benjamin has been held in Vakilabad prison in Mashhad in northeast Iran for 20 months…He is being held illegally.”

“We are distraught,” Blandine told FRANCE 24. “We are ordinary people who are asking for help from whomever is listening.”

This article was translated from the original in French.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting