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His family says Benjamin Briere is an innocent tourist who set out in 2018 in his camper van on a road trip that began in Scandinavia before heading overland toward Iran.

A court in Iran has sentenced a French tourist to eight years and eight months in prison on charges of espionage and propaganda against the Iranian Islamic system, his Paris-based lawyer said, denouncing the trial as a “masquerade.”

France's Foreign Ministry on January 25 called the verdict against Benjamin Briere "unacceptable," adding that it was in regular contact with Briere, who was arrested in May 2020 after flying a drone in the desert near the Turkmenistan-Iran border.

His family has insisted that he is innocent and that he was being used as a political pawn. Rights groups accuse Iran of using foreign detainees as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West.

The 36-year-old is one of more than a dozen foreign nationals or people with dual Iranian citizenship held in Iran, though he is said to be the only known Western detainee who does not also hold an Iranian passport.

Briere’s lawyer in Paris, Philippe Valent, said in a statement that his client was tried behind closed doors in the Revolutionary Court in the northeastern city of Mashhad and that he "did not have a fair trial in front of impartial judges."

He said Briere was given an eight-year sentence for alleged spying as well as an additional eight months for propaganda against Iran's Islamic system as a result of a “purely political” judicial process.

The lawyer said Briere was "more and more weak" from a hunger strike that he began in December 2021 to protest against the lack of progress in his case.

One of the Frenchman’s Iranian lawyers, Saeid Dehghan, told Reuters that his client was shocked by the sentence, which he said was harsher than expected and included an additional charge of cooperating against Iran with hostile states.

"His sentence is based on a different legal clause than the earlier one.... He has been convicted for cooperation with hostile states against Iran, which carries a longer sentence than his previous one," Dehghan said.

"He was not informed about this new charge and our defense in the past 20 months while he was in jail did not address it," he said, adding that the verdict would be appealed within 20 days.

Briere’s family says he is an innocent tourist who set out in 2018 in his camper van on a road trip that began in Scandinavia before heading overland toward Iran.

France has warned Tehran that the way it is handling the cases of French nationals held in Iran could sour ties.

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

With reporting by AFP and Reuters
Aleksei Navalny gestures while speaking via a video link from prison during a court session on December 28.

Russia has added jailed Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny and several of his allies to its list of "terrorists and extremists" in the latest in a series of moves by the authorities to stamp out opposition to President Vladimir Putin.

The entries for Navalny and 11 associates -- Lyubov Sobol, Vyacheslav Gimadi, Georgy Alburov, Ruslan Shaveddinov, Pavel Zelensky, Lilia Chanysheva, Zakhar Sarapulov, Ksenia Fadeyeva, Yegor Butakov, Vadim Ostanin, and Andrei Fateyev -- appeared in the register of Rosfinmonitoring on January 25, putting them in the same ranks as right-wing nationalist groups and foreign terrorist organizations such as the Taliban and the Islamic State.

Many of those designated have already fled Russia.

The moves come amid an ongoing crackdown on Navalny's now-outlawed political network and civil society more broadly.

EU foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano described the latest designations as part of "continued repression against critical voices" in Russia, while State Department spokesman Ned Price said they represented "a new low in Russia's continuing crackdown on independent civil society."

Less than two weeks ago, two other close associates of Navalny -- Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov -- were added to the list, which by law means their bank accounts must be frozen immediately. In addition, people on the list cannot use bank cards, take loans, or accept employment. They are frequently turned away when trying to purchase rail or plane tickets.

Sobol told Current Time that the move was not unexpected and that it "fits into Putin's logic and the general pressure that is currently being exerted against the opposition in Russia."

"Putin is designating everyone whom he doesn't like a 'terrorist or extremist'," she added, noting that there is practically no way to have oneself removed from the list.

Volkov said he was “proud to work in our fine team of 'extremists and terrorists'.”

“By devaluing the meaning of words and turning their meaning inside out, the Kremlin is digging a deeper hole for itself. It's doing all it can to make those who still believe Putin stop believing him," he tweeted.

Zhdanov said: "It's great that our super team of 'terrorists' is being joined by such great people."

Also on January 25, prosecutors appealed to a Moscow court to change a one-year suspended sentence given last August to Navalny's brother, Oleg Navalny, to a real prison term. Oleg Navalny was convicted, along with other Navalny allies, of violating pandemic restrictions by attending rallies in support of his brother.

Over the past year since Navalny returned from Germany, where he was recovering from a poison attack that almost killed him, thousands of protesters have been detained for demonstrating in support of the Kremlin critic, with many jailed.

More than half of his political coordinators have left Russia or been arrested for their activism, with some placed on wanted lists as "terrorists" or "extremists."

Violetta Grudina, the former head of Navalny's office in Murmansk, told RFE/RL on January 25 that she had left Russia for an unspecified country for fear that she would be imprisoned for purportedly violating pandemic restrictions. The same day, photographer Yevgeny Feldman, who worked for Navalny in 2017-18, posted on Facebook that he had also left Russia because of fears for his safety.

Journalists who probed the circumstances of Navalny's poisoning and cited his corruption investigations have been branded "foreign agents."

Last year, the Moscow City Court declared all organizations linked to Navalny as "extremist," preventing people associated with Navalny and his network of regional offices across Russia from seeking public office.

The ruling on his organizations also carries possible lengthy prison terms for activists who have worked with them.

Russia's 'Foreign Agent' Law: A Blunt Instrument To Silence Dissent
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Navalny himself has been in prison since February 2021 after being speedily tried and handed a 2 1/2-year prison sentence for violating the terms of an earlier parole in what was widely regarded a trumped-up, politically motivated case.

Navalny has blamed Putin for his poisoning with a Novichok-style chemical substance.

The Kremlin has denied any role in Navalny's poisoning.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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