TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – Iran has accused a French tourist of spying and “spreading propaganda against the system,” said his lawyer on Monday, the latest in a series of cases against foreigners at a time of heightened tensions between the Iran and the West.
Benjamin Berier was arrested about 10 months ago after taking pictures in a desert area where photography is prohibited and asking questions on social media about Iran’s mandatory Islamic veil for women, said his lawyer Saeed Dehghan.
Dehghan told the Associated Press that the charges were made at a Sunday hearing in the justice department of the northeastern city of Mashahd. He said that Berier was in good health.
However, “he is angry at the charges” and the length of the detention, Dehghan said. He said the city prosecutor must decide in the next few days whether to refer the case to a judge.
“If the prosecutor endorses the charge, your case will be taken to a judge to decide,” said Dehghan.
Authorities kept Berier in prison in Mashhad, Dehghan said. Under Iranian law, a conviction for spying can result in up to 10 years in prison.
The lawyer said Berier had maintained telephone contact with his family in France and the authorities had provided consular and legal access to him in recent months.
Berier became the most recent Westerner detained on widely criticized espionage charges. On Sunday, the prominent British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe reappeared in a Tehran court to face similar charges of propaganda spread after serving five years in prison. She remains in limbo in Iran awaiting the verdict, unable to fly home to London.
The cases arise as Iran increases pressure on the United States and European powers, including France and Britain, to grant the much-needed sanctions relief that the country received in its tattered nuclear deal with world powers.
While former President Donald Trump abandoned the historic nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and imposed harsh sanctions on the country, President Joe Biden offered to participate in negotiations to restore the deal. But Washington and Tehran have reached an impasse, with each insisting on the other move first to reactivate the agreement.
Human rights groups accuse Iranian security agencies’ hardliners of using foreign detainees as a bargaining chip for money or influence in negotiations with the West. Tehran denies, but there have been exchanges of prisoners in the past. Last March, for example, Iran and France exchanged French researcher Roland Marchal for Iranian engineer Jalal Ruhollahnejad.
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