Iran accuses French backpacker flying with drones of spying


Brière allegedly flew a drone near the Iran-Turkmenistan border last May. Photo / Unsplash

Iranian authorities have charged a French tourist with spying and spreading propaganda against the system, his lawyer said on Sunday.

It is the latest in a series of cases against foreign visitors amid heightened tensions between Iran and the West.

Benjamin Brière was arrested in May last year after piloting a drone and taking photos in a desert area where photography is banned and asking questions “in the media” about the Islamic headscarf compulsory in Iran for women.

Under Iranian law, a conviction for espionage can lead to up to 10 years in prison, and a conviction for spreading propaganda against the system can be punished from three months to one year.

Brière’s indictment was handed over by the justice ministry in the northeastern town of Mashahd. It was not immediately clear when his trial would take place.

Rights groups accuse extremists in Iranian security agencies of using foreign detainees as bargaining chips or as leverage in negotiations with the West. Tehran denies it, but there have been exchanges of prisoners in the past. Last year, Iran and France replaced French researcher Roland Marchal with Iranian engineer Jalal Ruhollahnejad.

The latest photos of Briere taken near the Turkmenistan-Iran border.  Photo / Supplied
The latest photos of Briere taken near the Turkmenistan-Iran border. Photo / Supplied

“Benjamin has spent over a year in prison and is only now officially charged with ‘espionage’,” said Kylie Moore-Gilbert of the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne.

“He had 4 phone calls with his family in 12 months.”

Brière is the last Westerner to be detained on widely criticized espionage charges.

The incident mirrors the plight of Australian backpackers Joely King and Mark Firkin, who were arrested in Evin in 2019.

Iran has confirmed it has arrested the couple who run the blog and Instagram page @TheWayOverland, after they were discovered taking photos and videos from the Iranian border.

The couple were released following the return of the prisoner from Queensland’s Dehbashi Kivi University to Tehran, although Australian Attorney General Christian Porter could not confirm that this was part of an exchange.

“The Australian government is not commenting on the details behind its review of individual cases,” he told The Guardian.

In March, prominent British and Iranian national double Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe reappeared in a Tehran court to face similar charges of spreading propaganda after serving a five-year prison sentence. She remains in limbo in Iran awaiting a verdict, unable to return to London.

The cases come as Iran steps up pressure on the United States and European powers, including France and Britain, to grant much-needed sanctions relief. Severe sanctions were reimposed on Iran after the United States withdrew from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018.

President Joe Biden has since joined in talks to restore the deal. But Washington and Tehran are at an impasse, each insisting on the other to revive the deal.

– Associated Press with additional reporting

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