A London-based British Council worker jailed in Iran was pressured to become a spy for the regime in exchange for her freedom, her cousin has told The National.
The family of Aras Amiri found out through local media on Monday that the 32-year-old had been sentenced to 10 years in prison, accused of being a UK spy.
Ms Amiri, an Iranian national, was arrested in March 2018 while visiting her sick grandmother in Tehran. She has been unable to leave the country ever since.
Mohsen Omrani said his cousin had been offered the chance to go back to the UK, if she spied on her employers, the British Council, during an interrogation by the regime’s authorities around eight months ago.
“They said you can go back and we will give you money and be our agent there,” Mr Omrani said.
When she refused, things started to “escalate”, he added.
Following her arrest in March 2018, Ms Amiri had been allowed out of prison to her family's home, having been initially detained for three months, but was imprisoned again after refusing to become an Iranian spy.
Mr Omarni said his cousin was being “held hostage” by the Iranian regime, who were using her as a bargaining chip in political negotiations with the British government
“She’s a bargaining chip. She doesn’t even have a British passport,” he said. “Essentially they are asking for a ransom. Her last session at the court was over two months ago but they have not announced the sentence until today.”
Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said on state television on Monday that an Iranian woman “who was in charge of the Iran desk in the British Council and was cooperating with Britain’s intelligence agency… was sentenced to 10 years in prison after clear confessions”.
The British Council said the news was deeply troubling. "We are dismayed by this reported sentence and are profoundly concerned for Aras’ safety and wellbeing, which has been our absolute priority throughout her detention since early 2018. We firmly refute the accusation levied against her," said Sir Ciaran Devane, the chief executive. “Aras has been employed for five years in London to help greater appreciation of Iranian culture in the UK, for example supporting translations of Iranian books into English.
"The British Council does not do any work in Iran and Aras did not travel to Iran for work. We will remain in close contact with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.”
The body has in the past refuted Iranian claims it had detained the "head of the Iran desk". The council said the staff member worked in a junior role in the UK "to support and showcase the Iranian contemporary art scene to UK audiences".
The organisation said it had not sent its employee to Iran on a work assignment.
The British Council is the UK's cultural outreach programme and has often been a target of the Iranian regime.
Iran closed down the British Council’s offices in Tehran in 2009. The UK-registered charity said it has no offices or representatives in the country.
Ms Amiri has a fiancé based in the UK, who has been unable to get a visa to visit her in Iran since her arrest.
A Foreign Office spokesperson said on Monday: “We are very concerned by reports that an Iranian British Council employee has been sentenced to jail on charges of espionage. We have not been able to confirm any further details at this stage. British Embassy officials in Tehran are in touch with the Iranian government to seek further information.”
Ms Amiri’s case bears similarities to that of British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been detained in the country since 2016.
Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband revealed earlier this year that his wife had been asked to spy on the UK in exchange for her freedom, which she refused.
Ms Amiri is being held Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, where Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe is also an inmate.