France has confirmed that a French tourist has been in detention in Iran for the past nine months on charges that his lawyer says are not clear. Iran now holds two French nationals, possibly as bargaining chips for prisoner swaps, or to pressure European powers to grant sanctions relief.
The French foreign ministry has confirmed a news report about the detention of a French citizen in Iran, saying that he was under consular protection and that officials and France and Iran were in regular contact with him and "attentively following the situation of our fellow national".
"This young tourist, detained illegally for about nine months, is faced with contradictory and false accusations," wrote his lawyer, Saeid Dehghan, on Twitter. He said he had not had access to the case files.
The man has been identified only by his first name, Benjamin. He drove a van from France to Iran, which he entered on a tourist visa. He was arrested in May 2020 in northeastern Iran near the border with Turkmenistan.
Dehghan denied reports that his client had been arrested after flying a drone in the desert, saying that he was operating a remote-controlled mini helicopter, or helicam, used to take nature photos.
Though, as RFI's correspondent says, there are many military bases along the road from Tehran to Machhad in the northeast, including ballistic missile sites.
The man is being held in Vakilabad prison in Machhad, and has had visits from consular officials. He has been able to communicate with his family in France a few times since he was detained.
French officials and his family had not revealed the detention out of concern it could harm potential negotiations.
Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards have arrested dozens of foreigners or dual nationals in recent years, mostly on charges of espionage.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, in a speech to the UN Human Rights Council on Monday, called for the release of Franco-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah, who was detained in June 2019. She was sentenced to five years in prison in May 2020 on security-related charges, and is currently under house arrest in Tehran, wearing an ankle monitor.
Her partner, French researcher Roland Marchal, who had been traveling with her, was released last year after France freed Jalal Ruhollahnejad, an Iranian engineer who was detained in France and being held for extradition to the United States for alleged violations of US sanctions against Tehran.
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Other prisoner exchanges have been negotiated, but Iran has denied that it arrests people to use as bargaining chips in prisoner swaps or negotiations with western powers.
Iran has been increasing pressure on Western countries to push the US to lift sanctions put in place after former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018.
Newly-elected US President Joe Biden has offered to join European countries in talks toward restoring the deal, which would prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
French President Emmanuel Macron said last month that he was ready to resume his role as mediator between Iran and the US.