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'Unbearable distress': families rally for French held in Iran

Benjamin Briere was arrested in May 2020 and sentenced to eight years and eight months in prison for spying
— Paris (AFP)

Families of the French citizens jailed in Iran held a rally Saturday to urge their release, warning that their loved ones were enduring a sometimes years-long "inhuman" psychological and physical ordeal.

Seven French citizens are currently held by Iran, according to the French foreign ministry. They are among two dozen foreign nationals campaigners say Iran has jailed in a strategy of hostage-taking to extract concessions from the West.

The scaling down of contacts between the West and Iran over the crackdown on the protests that erupted in September and the freezing of talks to revive the deal over its nuclear programme have further complicated efforts to secure their release.

The rally in Trocadero Square, central Paris, the first such to be organised in France, was attended by families and supporters of four of the French citizens held.

Dozens of people gathered behind a banner calling for 'freedom for the hostages in Iran'

Dozens of people gathered behind a banner calling for "freedom for the hostages in Iran", as the relatives of those held brandished photos of their loved ones.

"There are now more and more of us -- the families and friends -- who know the unbearable distress of having a loved one detained by the Iranian regime," said Noemie Kohler, sister of Cecile Kohler, a teacher arrested in May with her partner Jacques Paris and accused of espionage.

Those detained suffer "inhuman conditions of detention, solitary confinement, endless interrogations, the extraction of false confessions and sham trials", she said.

"Every single additional day is a day too many. We demand their immediate and unconditional release," she added.

- 'Far too long' -

The detainees "are at their wits' end, they are weakened psychologically, physically, and have lost hope", said Blandine Briere, the sister of Benjamin Briere, arrested in May 2020 and sentenced to eight years and eight months in prison on charges of spying.

It was now clear "staying silent is not a good strategy" and "we are now speaking out louder", she added.

"I think he held on for the first few months, telling himself that things were going to get better. But now it's far too long, whether for Benjamin or for everyone else, it's far too long."

The supporters of academic Fariba Adelkhah, arrested in June 2019 and then sentenced to five years in prison on national security charges, and Louis Arnaud, arrested on September 28, were also present.

The families of all those held dismiss the charges against them as pure fabrications.

Seven French citizens are currently held by Iran, according to the French foreign ministry

Another of the detainees is a 64-year-old Franco-Irish citizen Bernard Phelan. Detained since the beginning of October and whose state of health worries his family and the French authorities.

The identity of the seventh person detained has not been revealed.

Paris said Wednesday said that Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna had demanded the "immediate release of the seven French hostages arbitrarily detained" by Tehran in telephone talks with her Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.

Iran erupted into protests in September, following the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was arrested for allegedly violating the Islamic republic's strict dress rules.

The Iranian judiciary said in late September that it had arrested nine foreigners over activities linked to the protests but never gave details of their identity or nationality.

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