French national still in Iran jail despite acquittal: lawyer

French citizen Benjamin Briere is still in an Iranian jail despite his recent acquittal by an appeals court, his lawyer said Thursday.

Briere was detained in May 2020, and later sentenced to eight years in prison for espionage.

He is one of several foreigners who campaigners say Iran has jailed in a strategy of hostage-taking to extract concessions from the West.

Briere’s France-based lawyer, Philippe Valent, said in a statement sent to AFP that an Iranian appeals court had cleared his client of all charges and ordered his release on February 15.

But Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the branch of the security forces entrusted with the preservation of the regime, “are keeping him imprisoned despite this declaration of innocence”, he said.

“His release was prevented at the last moment,” he told AFP.

The French foreign ministry, when contacted, said it was “concerned about the situation of Mr Briere,” adding that “France is calling for the immediate release of all French nationals”.

Held in the prison of Vakilabad in the eastern city of Mashhad, Briere is continuing a hunger strike which he started a month ago, and is “exhausted physically and mentally”, Valent said.

Valent, who had previously described the espionage charges against his client as “fiction”, said Thursday their “arbitrary nature” was “blatantly obvious”.

A copy of the appeals court judgement he showed AFP stated that Briere “was not present in the forbidden and sensitive places of the country and did not take any pictures or videos” of those places.

He was “only a foreign tourist” whose “personal items and equipment were not used for espionage”, it said.

“There is not sufficient evidence to establish a crime, and the verdict is issued for the acquittal of Mr. Benjamin Briere,” it read.

Valent said Briere’s family was demanding his immediate release.

‘Completely incomprehensible’

“This situation is completely incomprehensible,” Blandine Briere, his sister, told AFP.

She said the family had decided not to report the appeals court’s verdict earlier in the hope that the situation might be resolved quietly.

Another detainee in Iran, 64-year-old Franco-Irish citizen Bernard Phelan held since October 1, in January suspended a hunger strike that included refusing water, at the request of his family, who feared for his life.

Phelan, a Paris-based travel consultant, was arrested while travelling and is being held in Mashhad.

Iran accuses him of anti-government propaganda, a charge he has denied.

Six French nationals are currently held in Iran.

The French foreign ministry has repeatedly condemned Iran for what it calls “hostage diplomacy”.

Overall, Iran is holding at least 17 Western nationals, most of whom have dual nationality. They are described by their supporters as innocents used by Tehran as levers for negotiation.

Iran is one of the world’s most sanctioned countries, with Western powers over the past four decades using a punishing array of measures in a bid to push change.

France on Thursday called developments in Iran’s nuclear programme “very concerning” after the UN nuclear watchdog reported finding uranium particles enriched just under the 90 percent needed for an atomic bomb.

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