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.