PARIS (AP) — A French tourist jailed in Iran since last year has begun a hunger strike to protest against mistreatment in prison, according to his sister and his lawyer.
Benjamin Brière, 36, was arrested in May 2020 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.
Brière was charged in March this year with spying and “spreading propaganda against the system.”
He began a hunger strike on Saturday after “one more mistreatment” after he was denied access to a phone call with his family on Christmas Day, his sister, Blandine Brière, told The Associated Press on Monday. He wants to “protest … and therefore put his health at risk to move things forward,” she said.
“At the moment, we don’t see any move, we have no hope of change, of freedom,” she deplored.
Blandine Brière described the “difficult” situation of her brother, who doesn’t speak the local language, in the prison of the northeastern city of Mashahd, including “psychological torture” when guards promise him a phone call and later say no.
“Physically he was doing OK (until now), but morally he has really started to sink,” she said. “It’s getting critical. It is really a desperate call for help.”
A statement from Benjamin Brière’s Paris-based lawyer, Philippe Valent, said “the feeling of abandonment and distress” has led him “to embark on a hunger strike in order to alert Iranian authorities and French authorities about the absurdity of his detention.”
Brière has never been brought before a judge and no date for a trial has been set, the statement said. He is “not a spy nor a criminal, but a tourist whose travel is continuing in an aberrant and unfair way in Iranian prisons,” it added.
The French Foreign Ministry said in a statement Monday that French officials in Paris and Tehran have been very closely monitoring the situation and that Brière has been contacted by the French Embassy on Monday.
There was no immediate comment from Iranian officials.
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.
In March 2020, Iran and France swapped French researcher Roland Marchal for Iranian engineer Jalal Ruhollahnejad.
Marchal was arrested in June 2019 alongside fellow researcher Fariba Adelkhah, an anthropologist with dual French-Iranian citizenship. Adelkhah, who was given a five-year sentence for “gathering and collusion” against Iran’s security, was granted a furlough with no deadline in October 2020 and is required to stay at her sister’s house in Tehran and wear an electronic monitoring bracelet.
Isabel DeBre contributed to this report from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.