PARIS – A Frenchman detained in Iran and hunger striking to protest his treatment has been sentenced to eight years in prison on what his lawyer insisted Tuesday are trumped up espionage and propaganda charges.
Benjamin Brière, 36, was arrested in May 2020 after taking pictures in a desert area where photography is prohibited and asking questions on social media about Iran’s obligatory Islamic headscarf for women.
Paris-based lawyer Philippe Valent said an Iranian revolutionary court has sentenced Brière to eight years in prison for espionage and eight months of imprisonment for anti-government propaganda. Under Iranian law, the longer part is applied in practice.
The lawyer said the charges are entirely without foundation.
Brière began a hunger strike on Dec. 25 to protest mistreatment in the prison of the northeastern city of Mashhad where he is being detained.
His sister, Blandine Brière, told The Associated Press “we are disheartened at such a huge sentence and also very angry to see this is actually a political trial."
“This is like a huge mountain in front of us, we feel helpless,” she added, saying her brother is caught in “a diplomatic game” played by Iranian authorities.
“Today we need the (French) government to take action and help us, help Benjamin, and do whatever is needed to get him out," she said. “He is getting weaker, he is very tired physically and mentally."
Brière's Iranian lawyer, Saeed Dehghan, told the AP that his client is still on hunger strike yet is “in good spirits.”
Dehghan said the court hearing took place Thursday in Mashhad. Brière was charged for "cooperation with a foreign hostile nation against Islamic Republic of Iran,” he said.
This is the first time that an Iranian court considered France a “hostile nation.” So far, the U.S. and Israel were on the list in similar cases.
France, alongside other world powers, is in negotiations with Iran in Vienna to revive a 2015 nuclear deal.
Brière's conviction comes after researcher Fariba Adelkhah, an anthropologist with dual French-Iranian citizenship, was sent back to prison earlier this month.
Adelkhah has been detained in Iran since June 2019 and was given a five-year sentence for “gathering and collusion” against Iran’s security. She had been under house arrest since October 2020.
French authorities condemned the Jan. 12 decision to jail Adelkhah in a statement last week from Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire-Legendre. “We demand her immediate release,” she said, adding that her conviction “is not based on any credible evidence; it is purely political and arbitrary.”
Rights groups accuse hard-liners in Iran’s security agencies of using foreign detainees as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West. Tehran denies it, but there have been prisoner exchanges in the past.
In March 2020, Iran and France swapped French researcher Roland Marchal for Iranian engineer Jalal Ruhollahnejad.
Nasser Karimi contributed to this report from Tehran, Iran.