Iranian trials spark anger in Europe

French lecturer and embassies workers appear in the dock alongside others detained during protests over the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

TEHRAN // A French lecturer and two Iranian employees of the UK and French embassies were in the dock yesterday alongside others detained during protests over the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sparking anger in London and surprise in Paris. Clotilde Reiss, who turned 24 in Tehran's notorious Evin prison on July 31, was arrested on July 1 as she tried to fly home.

"She is accused of collecting information and provoking rioters," the official IRNA news agency reported. Fellow defendant Nazak Afshar, from the French Embassy's cultural section, was detained on Thursday. Iran's state television said both played an "active role in the unrest by giving information to foreign embassies". IRNA said Ms Reiss had reported on post-election protests in the central city of Isfahan to the French Embassy.

"I have written a one-page report and submitted it to ? the cultural department of the French Embassy," it quoted her as telling the judge. "I was planning to leave Iran, but I took part in rallies of June 15 and 17 in Tehran and took photographs and film. I did this out of curiosity and to be aware of the political situation. I wanted to know what was happening." Ms Reiss denied preparing a technical report on Iran's controversial nuclear programme.

Ms Afshar told the court that she and other staffers had been told to shelter protesters if required, IRNA said. "In the event that confrontations occurred in front of the cultural department of the embassy, we were told to offer refuge to protesters if they asked." Also in the dock was UK Embassy local staffer Hossein Rassam who was detained during the post-vote violence in Tehran along with eight embassy colleagues. They were later freed, while he was released on bail.

IRNA said he has been accused of spying. "Based on the order of British Embassy, the local staff were asked to be present in the riots along with Tom Burn and Paul Blemey," Mr Rassam said of two British diplomats expelled by Iran in June. "You along with Arash Momenian were given the duty of meeting representatives of political groups, ethnic and religious minorities, and student groups and to relay the news of Iran's riots to London," IRNA quoted the prosecutor as telling the court.

The judge said the allegation merited a charge of espionage. "Based on the charges read out by the Tehran prosecution, you are accused of spying for foreigners," the judge was quoted as saying by IRNA, which identified him by only the single name Salavati. Mr Rassam was quoted as telling the court: "The victory of Mr Ahmadinejad was shocking for the British Embassy, and in our first report to London we stressed claims made by one candidate about fraud" in the election.

He told the court that British diplomats, including the two expelled later, had attended protests in Tehran and that "the ambassador along with the charge d'affaires took part in witnessing a rally of Mousavi supporters". In London, a foreign office spokeswoman lambasted Mr Rassam's trial. "We deplore these trials and the so-called confessions of prisoners who have been denied their basic human rights," she said.

"Our ambassador in Tehran has demanded early clarification of the position from the Iranian authorities. We will then decide on how to respond to this latest outrage." In France, Ms Reiss's father Remi was taken unawares by her appearance in court. "I had not been told. I was surprised to see her appear at this trial," he said, adding that he believes she is innocent. During the session, a prosecutor read out an indictment saying the US and Britain had plans to foment the unrest with the aim of toppling Iran's Islamic rulers through a "soft overthrow", IRNA reported.

The vague indictment also accused the two powers of providing financial assistance to Iran's reformists to undermine hardline clerics within the ruling system. A reformist website said riot police attacked family members of the defendants and others gathered in front of the court to denounce the trial. Yesterday's hearing was the second in a trial that started a week ago, although it was a new group of defendants facing the judge. Human rights groups and Iran's opposition have criticised the trial as a sham and said televised confessions from defendants were scripted by authorities and extracted through pressure.

More than 10 other defendants detained during the protests that followed Mr Ahmadinejad's hotly disputed June 12 re-election were in court with Ms Reiss and the two embassy staffers. Iranian defendants appearing yesterday included Ali Tajernia, a former reformist legislator; Shahaboddin Tabatabaei, a prominent leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, Iran's largest reformist political party; Ahmad Zeidabadi, an outspoken journalist opposing hardliners; and Behzad Nabavi, a reformist legislator.

Some 100 defendants were charged with various offences, including rioting, at the first hearing on August 1. Ms Reiss and the two embassy staffers were not present in court then. At that hearing, several accused withdrew earlier allegations of fraud in the presidential election, saying that Mr Ahmadinejad's victory was clean. Another 10 protesters were put in the dock in a separate trial last week.

Both Mr Ahmadinejad's main challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi and reformist former president Mohammad Khatami have denounced the trials. * Agence France-Presse, with additional reporting by the Associated Press