As nationwide protests in Iran over last month’s death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody remained unabated, the authorities announced this week that “at least” five French citizens had been arrested in "the case of French spies."
Judiciary spokesman Masoud Setayeshi said on Tuesday, 25 October, that the suspects are accused of "conspiracy and collusion" with the aim of harming national security.
He said the investigation was moving swiftly but did not provide further details.
Earlier this month, France said five of its citizens were being held in Iran and lashed out at Tehran for "dictatorial practices." Paris accused Iranian authorities of taking two of its citizens hostage after a video was aired on October 6 in which they appeared to confess to spying. Iranian state media often air purported confessions by suspects.
In May, Iran's Intelligence Ministry announced it had arrested the two French citizens who appeared on the video -- Cecile Kohler, 37, and her 69 -year-old husband Jacques Paris -- for allegedly fomenting and taking part in teachers’ strikes. Paris condemned their arrest and demanded the pair's release.
The Iranian judiciary’s announcement comes as Iranians continue to hold national anti-government rallies across the country over Amini’s death on 16 September, after she was arrested for allegedly wearing the hijab incorrectly. The authorities have cracked down hard on the protest movement, killing at least 234 people, including 29 children, according to one human rights organization. Several thousand people have been arrested.
France and other European countries have urged their citizens to leave Iran “as soon as possible," saying they were exposed to a high risk of arrest, arbitrary detention and unfair trial.
Iran has repeatedly accused outside forces are stoking the ongoing unrest, without showing any evidence to back up its claim. Amini's death and the deadly crackdown on the demonstrations have prompted several Western countries to impose new sanctions on Iranian officials and entities.
French citizens held in Iran include dual national Fariba Adelkhah, who was arrested in June 2019. In 2020, her lawyer said she had been sentenced to six years in prison for "assembly and conspiracy to act against national security" and for "propaganda against the regime."
Her partner, Roland Marchal, was arrested at the same time as Adelkhah but was released from prison in 2020 in return for the release of a detained Iranian.
A fourth French national, Benjamin Briere, was detained in 2020 and sentenced to eight years and eight months in prison for espionage.
The fifth is a "Frenchman who was passing through" Tehran, France's Foreign Ministry said earlier this month.
Western countries have repeatedly accused Iran of taking dual and foreign nationals into custody on false charges for the sole purpose of using them in prisoner swaps.