Iranian appeals court upholds jail term against Frenchman convicted of spying

Benjamin Briere was arrested after using a recreational drone to take pictures in a national park

An Iranian appeals court upheld a prison sentence against Frenchman Benjamin Briere. AFP
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An Iranian appeals court has upheld the eight years and eight month prison sentence given to a French tourist who was convicted on spying charges.

Benjamin Briere, 36, was sentenced to eight years in jail last January after he was arrested in May 2020 for taking pictures in a national park with a recreational drone.

The failed appeal comes as the US met Iranian officials in Qatar to resume indirect talks over how to revive western powers' 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.

The talks, which are being mediated by European Union diplomats, are the first since negotiations broke down in March.

On Tuesday, Mr Briere's lawyer, Saeid Dehghan, announced the appeal decision on Twitter.

"The sentence of eight years and eight months in prison for a French tourist was finalised," he tweeted.

"In this sentence: 1. France was recognised as a 'hostile state'. 2. 'Condolences to the victims of the Ukrainian plane' was announced as one of the reasons for the conviction. 3. Expertise in the field of informatics, having more than one hard drive and mobile phone are other reasons."

“It should be noted that never before has a court in Iran referred to France as an ‘enemy government',” Mr Dehghan said.

Mr Briere, a travel blogger, was accused of having “suspicious communications” with individuals opposed to the state and using his skills and equipment as a computer specialist.

He has also been accused of "expressing sympathy" for the victims of a passenger plane shot down by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in January 2020, Mr Dehghan said.

Mr Briere has consistently denied any wrongdoing and France has called on Iran to release him.

He had been flying a helicam ― a remote-controlled mini-helicopter used to obtain aerial or motion images ― in the desert near the border with Turkmenistan when he was arrested.

His lawyers and family accuse Iran of holding him as a hostage.

On Tuesday, his French lawyer, Philippe Valent, told AFP Mr Briere's case was being "instrumentalised" by the Iranian authorities.

"It's shocking and dramatic," he said of the verdict that coincided with the resumption of the nuclear deal negotiations.

The appeals court had accused Mr Briere of being "an agent in the service of an enemy state" in its verdict.

The Centre for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has urged countries negotiating with Iran over its nuclear programme, including France, the UK and the US, to condemn the Iranian judiciary’s "blatantly unlawful" prison sentence.

“Mr Briere was detained by Iran’s security establishment to be added as yet another pawn in the government’s arsenal of human bargaining chips,” said CHRI executive director Hadi Ghaemi.

“Individuals continue to be nabbed and used to extract political and economic concessions from other countries. Silence in the face of this blatant extortion reflects an inability to enact meaningful consequences and will only result in more hostages."

Earlier this year, Mr Briere, who is being held at the Vakilabad jail in the eastern city of Mashhad, went on hunger strike for 35 days in protest at his sentence.

He is one of more than a dozen western citizens described as hostages by activists, who say they are innocent of any crime and detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to extract concessions from the West.

In February, French President Emmanuel Macron raised his case in phone talks with Iranian leader Ebrahim Raisi and called for his "immediate release".

Mr Briere is one of at least 18 foreign and dual citizens detained in Iran without being allowed access to internationally recognised standards of due process.

Updated: June 29, 2022, 10:16 AM