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For the families of the seven French detainees in Iran, helplessness and anguish


With the approach of a new set of sanctions from the European Union vis-à-vis Tehran, concern is rising a notch among the relatives of French prisoners detained in Iran. The families fear that the Islamic Republic will exploit them a little more. Testimonials.

“It is difficult to speak and say what is on your heart without taking the risk of putting our loved ones in even more difficult positions, comments Blandine, the sister of Benjamin Brière, arrested in May 2020 and sentenced to eight years and eight months in prison for espionage on charges of photographing prohibited areas with a recreational drone in a natural park Of course, European sanctions may bring hope to the Iranian people, but perhaps they are less for our loved ones. In fact, we do not know the consequences that European sanctions may have on European detainees. Moreover, some families prefer to remain silent so as not to hinder the diplomatic efforts deployed by France. We agree to talk, but we’re scared by what’s going on.”

The latest news from Benjamin Brière is not reassuring. The cold that pierces through the broken panes of his cell and the feverish wait in the midst of fellow prisoners sentenced to death, have damaged the morale of the 37-year-old prisoner, most likely a victim of hostage diplomacy, which the Islamic Republic periodically practices. since 1979. “He no longer tries to hide the reality from us so that we don’t worry. He is out of breath”.

4 months of demonstrations in Iran: additional European actions against Tehran? © AFP

Seven detainees known to the French authorities

Like Benjamin Brière, at least six other French nationals are currently detained in Iran. Among them, the Franco-Iranian researcher Fariba Adelkhah, arrested in June 2019 and then sentenced to five years in prison for undermining national security. Cécile Kohler and her companion Jacques Paris were arrested in May while they were sightseeing in Iran. Bernard Phelan, 64-year-old Franco-Irish, suffering from heart problems and bone pathology, was arrested on October 3 while traveling as a consultant for a tour operator. Three other nationals, whose families have chosen to remain anonymous, are also being held in Iranian jails.

In all, there are more than twenty nationals of Western countries, binationals for the most part, who are detained or stranded in Iran. Faced with the arbitrary arrests and summary executions which have multiplied in the country since the arrest of Mahsa Amini more than four months ago, the European Parliament has increased the pressure on Tehran by approving, in particular on January 18, a text which calls European Union to designate the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. Such a requalification is currently being studied by Brussels. The approach could obtain the support of France.


“We live to the rhythm of the news”

But it would not be without consequences for the French hostages. The head of the Revolutionary Guards, the ideological army of the Islamic Republic, also warned, on Saturday January 21, the European Union against the “error” that it would constitute in his eyes to add them to the list terrorist organizations. Statements assiduously followed by the families. “We live to the rhythm of the news, says Noémie, Cécile Kohler’s 33-year-old little sister. We watch the news several times a day on French and Iranian sites. It’s hard not to be worried when we sees the large number of convictions and executions. The sentence imposed on the Belgian national, sentenced to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes, terrifies us. Our loved ones are caught in an escalation of tensions that are beyond them. And we are powerless. At our level, we are just waiting to be able to have news. To know how Cécile is doing.”

The few pieces of information that filter through the maze of the Iranian prison administration are meager. Incarcerated since May 7, the associate teacher of modern letters, originally from Soultz, was only authorized to reach her parents by telephone on December 18. A video call of a few minutes under surveillance during which she could not speak freely. Under the veil, the young woman in tears appears physically exhausted. In section 209 of Evin prison, she was first placed in solitary confinement in a high-security cell before joining fellow prisoners who come and go according to convictions. No independent lawyer, few consular visits. And the books she asked for from her family when she called have still not arrived. Just three exits from his cell per week in the prison yard. “Her conditions of detention are appalling. So we do not want to comment on possible sanctions at the risk of compromising her chances of release or putting her in even more difficulty”.

Same misfortune for Fariba Adelkhah also detained in Evin. The specialist in Shiism and post-revolutionary Iran at the Institute of Political Studies (IEP) in Paris was arrested in June 2019 and then sentenced in May 2020 to five years in prison for undermining national security. Under house arrest since October 2020 in Tehran, with the obligation to wear an electronic bracelet, she was reincarcerated in January 2022 for having broken these rules, according to the judicial authorities. “Fariba was able to see the intensification of arrests from his cell where the inmates are always more numerous, explains Sandrine Perrot, member of the support committee from the start. Dozens of inmates live in a single large cell in conditions of promiscuity and unsanitary conditions. Prison overcrowding leads to real health problems”. If the Franco-Iranian researcher can count on the visit of her Iranian family and her lawyer or consult a few books from a library to keep her spirits up, she cannot however make calls abroad or receive mail. . And suffers from not seeing any improvement in his situation.

Iran: in Paris, demonstrators demand more firmness from the French government
Iran: in Paris, demonstrators demand more firmness from the French government © France 24

“We expect a real European front”

Unlike the other families, Fariba Adelkhah’s support committee regrets that the political question of the detainees is not given more media coverage. “There is constant talk in the media about nuclear issues or the position of Russia engaged in the war in Ukraine in relation to Iran, but little or nothing about the French hostages who are a real bargaining chip for the Iran”, continues Sandrine Perrot. We see that French diplomacy is making efforts, but we do not see Europe uniting on this issue when there are now about ten European hostages. We are waiting for a real European front”. As for the question of sanctions, Sandrine Perrot has the impression that they affect the daily lives of Iranians more than they weaken the regime. “This question has changed the atmosphere in the prisons . Prison staff under pressure, too, show signs of tension when they disagree with each other, for example. The situation also naturally weighs on the detainees. The prospect of new sanctions increases the anxiety of the prisoners a little more”.

Determined to ward off the arbitrariness of the arrests, the relatives of the French detainees, condemned to waiting and anguish, want to act. The families and support committees of Fariba Adelkhah, Benjamin Brière and Cécile Kohler are organizing a “symbolic and peaceful” rally on Saturday January 28, at 2:00 p.m., on the forecourt of Human Rights in Paris, so that the seven hostages French do not fall into oblivion. “We have forged ties between relatives of the detainees. And we are all determined to do everything possible to get them out of these absurd situations”.

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