Iran confirmed a long prison sentence for French national Benjamin Briere on allegations of spying, as it began nuclear talks mediated by the European Union.
His Iranian Paris-based lawyer, Saied Dehghan, said Tuesday that an Iranian appeals court has upheld the sentence on charges of “spying” and “propaganda against the regime” and Briere was sentenced to eight years and eight months in prison.
The appeals court said in its verdict that Brière is "an agent in the service of an enemy state," and mentioned “sympathy with the victims of the Ukrainian plane” [Flight 752 downed by Iran]”, “IT expertise", and "possession of more than one hard drive and mobile phone” as reasons behind the decision.
The airliner referred to in the verdict was shot down by two air-defense missiles fired by the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) on January 8, 2020, as it took off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport killing all 176 people onboard.
Briere’s other lawyer Philippe Valent, said his case was being "instrumentalized" by the Iranian authorities. Accusing Iran of holding him as a "hostage." He added, "It's shocking and dramatic."
“It is unacceptable that Benjamin Briere remains a hostage to negotiations on the part of a regime that persists in its desire to arbitrarily detain a French citizen and use him as a bargaining chip,” he added, urging “the French, American and British authorities to make the liberation of hostages a pre-condition for the resumption of [nuclear] negotiations.”
"Benjamin Brière has obviously not - nor has he ever - been given a fair trial before impartial judges. He was not given any right to defend himself, no access to the prosecution's case, no opportunity to prepare and present a defense before the judges of the Revolutionary Court," Valent said in a statement, adding that he would appeal. "The family of Benjamin Brière is now calling on the French authorities to take immediate steps to allow his repatriation".
On Tuesday, France's foreign ministry said that the sentence had no basis in fact and was "unacceptable".
His sister Blandine Brière told AFP that her brother was a "political hostage," saying that "It is clear that this is a useful political trial for Iran, which sends a message to the French government. We are nothing in the face of this, we feel like pawns in a diplomatic game."
Briere, a 36-year-old travel blogger, has been held in Iran since May 2020, when he was arrested after flying a recreational helicam -- a remote-controlled mini helicopter used to obtain aerial or motion images -- in a national park near the Turkmenistan-Iran border. He went on hunger strike at Valikabad prison in Mashhad in December to protest his detention conditions.
In the past decade, Iran's Revolutionary Guards have arrested dozens of dual nationals and foreigners, mostly on unproven allegations of espionage and breach of security, in what human rights organizations have said is essentially hostage taking.
The sentence comes as indirect or "proximity" nuclear talks between Iran and the United States began Tuesday with negotiators in different parts of a hotel in Doha, Qatar.
Enrique Mora, the European Union official who chaired year-long talks in Vienna aimed at reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA), is acting as a mediator between the teams led by Rob Malley, the United States special envoy, and Ali Bagheri-Kani, a deputy Iranian foreign minister.