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Lawyer: French tourist detained in Iran on security charges

February 24, 2021 GMT

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran has detained a French tourist for nine months, his lawyer said on Wednesday, the latest in a series of detentions of foreigners at a time of heightened tensions between Iran and the West.

The detainee’s lawyer, Saeed Dehghan, described the charges against the French tourist held in Iran as “paradoxical,” involving murky security-related accusations. He identified the male tourist only as a 30-something French citizen named Benjamin, declining to give any further details.

The revelation comes as Iran is seeking to pressure the United States and European powers, including France, to grant the sanctions relief it received under its tattered 2015 nuclear accord with world powers.

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An official at the French Foreign Ministry confirmed that ministry officials in Paris and in Tehran are following “the situation of our countryman.” Consular officials have visited the detained French man and the French Embassy maintains “regular contacts” with him and his family, the official said, refusing to provide personal information about the prisoner, in keeping with policy. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

While former U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned the landmark nuclear accord with Iran and reimposed harsh sanctions on the country nearly three years ago, President Joe Biden has offered to join European countries in talks toward restoring the deal.

Dehghan told The Associated Press that he’d met the Frenchman three times in Vakilabad prison in the northeastern city of Mashhad, with the latest visit less than a month ago. Benjamin has been in good health since being able to communicate with his family back home in France, he added, after a few “tense” months without any contact.

He did not elaborate on how Benjamin landed in jail, saying only that security agents picked him up in a northeastern Iranian town.

Calls to Iranian authorities were not immediately returned on Wednesday.

Dehghan denied recent reports that his client had been arrested after attempting to fly a drone in the desert in Iran, saying that he only was operating a helicam, or a remote-controlled mini helicopter outfitted with a camera that he said is commonplace among youth in Iran.

He also denied widely circulated reports that his client was a dual national, insisting that he traveled to Iran on a tourist visa. Iran has detained several dual nationals in recent years, frequently on security charges.

Analysts and rights groups accuse hardliners in Iran’s security agencies of using foreign detainees as bargaining chips for leverage in negotiations or prisoner swaps with the West, which Tehran denies.

Last March, Iran and France conducted a prisoner exchange, swapping French researcher Roland Marchal for Iranian engineer Jalal Ruhollahnejad.

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Associated Press writers Elaine Ganley in Paris and Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.