TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran has charged a French tourist with spying and “spreading propaganda against the system,” his lawyer said Monday, the latest in a series of cases against foreigners at a time of heightened tensions between Iran and the West.
Benjamin Berier was arrested some 10 months ago 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, said his lawyer Saeed Dehghan.
Dehghan told The Associated Press the charges came in a Sunday hearing in the justice department in the northeastern city of Mashahd. He said Berier was in good health.
However, “he is angry because of the charges” and length of detention, Dehghan said. He said the city's senior prosecutor was expected to decide in the coming days whether to send the case before a judge.
“If the prosecutor endorses the charge, his case will go to a judge to decide,” said Dehghan.
Authorities were holding Berier at a prison in Mashhad, Dehghan said. Under Iranian law, a spying conviction can result in up to 10 years in prison.
The lawyer said Berier has had telephone contact with his family in France and authorities provided both consular and legal access to him in recent months.
Berier has become the latest Westerner held on widely criticized espionage charges. On Sunday, prominent British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe reappeared in a Tehran court to face similar accusations of spreading propaganda after completing a five-year prison sentence. She remains in limbo in Iran awaiting the verdict, unable to fly home to London.
The cases come as Iran escalates pressure on the United States and European powers, including France and Britain, to grant the badly needed sanctions relief the country received under its tattered nuclear accord with world powers.
While former President Donald Trump abandoned the landmark nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and reimposed harsh sanctions on the country, President Joe Biden has offered to join in talks toward restoring the deal. But Washington and Tehran have reached an impasse, with each insisting the other move first to revive the deal.
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 such prisoner exchanges in the past. Last March for instance, Iran and France swapped French researcher Roland Marchal for Iranian engineer Jalal Ruhollahnejad.