Iran charges French woman, Iranians with spying, aiding western plot to overthrow clerical rule

From the Ottawa Citizen.

Tehran trial of teacher, embassy aides an ‘outrage’

Britain, France, EU say charges of spying baseless, demand release of French woman, two employees

By Parisa Hafezi, and Zahra Hosseinian, Reuters, with files from agence France-PresseAugust 9, 2009
French-language lecturer Clotilde Reiss waits during her trial at the Revolutionary Court in Tehran on Saturday. Reiss was arrested on on charges of espionage as she was leaving the country on July 1.

French-language lecturer Clotilde Reiss waits during her trial at the Revolutionary Court in Tehran on Saturday. Reiss was arrested on on charges of espionage as she was leaving the country on July 1.

Photograph by: Fars News, Reuters, Reuters, with files from agence France-Presse

An Iranian court on Saturday charged a French woman, two Iranians working for the British and French embassies in Tehran and dozens of others with spying and aiding a western plot to overthrow the system of clerical rule.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the trial in Tehran was the “latest Iranian provocation,” while Sweden, which currently holds the European Union presidency, said it was an act against the entire 27-nation bloc.

France called on Iran to release the French woman, 24-year-old lecturer Clotilde Reiss, and Franco-Iranian Nazak Afshar, who works for the cultural section of the French embassy in Tehran.

Miliband said he was “deeply concerned by the unjustified charges” laid against Hossein Rassam, who is the British embassy’s chief political analyst.

“Hossein is a member of our embassy staff going about his legitimate duties. Iranian action against him, and those against Clotilde Reiss and a member of the staff of the French embassy in Tehran only brings further discredit on the Iranian regime,” he said.

It was the second mass trial in a week aimed at uprooting the moderate opposition and ending protests that erupted after the disputed June 12 presidential election.

At least 26 people have been killed and hundreds arrested in post-election violence. Moderates say the poll was rigged for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to win, but officials say it was the “healthiest” vote since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The protests have exposed deep rifts within the clerical establishment in Iran, the world’s fifth biggest oil producer.

Reiss was charged with “acting against national security by taking part in unrest … collecting news and information and sending pictures of the unrest abroad,” state news agency IRNA said.

Espionage and acting against national security are punishable by death under Iran’s Islamic law.

Reiss confessed her “mistakes” and asked for clemency, IRNA said. Afshar was also charged with “providing information over the vote unrest to foreigners.”

“We were not authorized by the embassy to go to rallies, but we were told to shelter protesters if necessary,” Afshar said.

Rassam was charged with espionage and confessed to handing information about the unrest to Washington, IRNA said.

“The local staff were asked by their superiors at the British Embassy to attend the riots,” IRNA quoted Rassam as telling the court. Rassam was freed on $100,000 bail on July 19.

“Several British diplomats attended rallies. … The British ambassador and the chargé d’affaires also went to a rally.”

The trial was a further sign that Iran’s hardline leadership is not interested in reconciliation with the moderate opposition or repairing ties with the West, analysts said.

“This is not calculated to heal the divide,” said Ali Ansari, an Iran expert at Scotland’s St. Andrews University.

“It’s an attempt by the hardliners to impose their narrative,” he said. “You can’t kill that many people on the street and not try to prove that you were right. But the problems facing the Islamic Republic are far more serious than can be solved by simply putting on a show trial.”

Riot police used force to break up a protest by relatives of the accused outside the courtroom.

“Relatives of the defendants and a large group of people gathered in front of the court building on Saturday. When they chanted ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is greatest), the riot police attacked them,” the reformist Mosharekat website said.

Reiss has been held in Tehran’s Evin Prison since she was arrested at a Tehran airport on July 1 as she tried to leave Iran after spending five months in the central city of Isfahan.

Television showed Reiss, wearing a black Islamic gown and a white-brown headscarf, sitting in the front row in the court. It was not clear whether she had a translator when the indictment was read.

“I wrote a one-page report about the situation in Isfahan … and handed it over to the French embassy’s cultural section,” IRNA quoted her as saying in court.

France has rejected the charge against Reiss as “baseless” and French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for her immediate release. “France renews its demand for the immediate liberation of the young academic, since the accusations against her are baseless,” France’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Britain earlier described the trial as an “outrage.”

At a mass trial last Saturday more than 100 reformists, including a former vice-president and several other prominent figures, were charged with offences that included acting against national security by fomenting post-election unrest.

Leading moderates, including defeated candidates Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, have defied supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has formally endorsed Ahmadinejad.

They say the new government Ahmadinejad is to appoint will be illegitimate. Ahmadinejad has two weeks to name his cabinet.

Pro-reform politicians have denounced the court cases as “show trials,” saying the confessions were made under duress.

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