Middle East

Iran 'jails British Council worker for spying for UK'

File photo showing skyline of Tehran, Iran (1 April 2019) Image copyright NurPhoto
Image caption British diplomats in Tehran are seeking further information from Iranian authorities

An Iranian woman has been sentenced to 10 years in prison in Iran for spying for the UK, officials say.

Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said the woman had been "in charge of the Iran desk" of the British Council, a cultural organisation.

She confessed to "co-operating" with British intelligence, he alleged.

Mr Esmaili did not identify the woman. But a relative named her as Aras Amiri, a London-based British Council employee who was detained in Iran in March 2018.

Ms Amiri's cousin, Mohsen Omrani, said last May that she had been accused of "acting against national security".

This charge has been laid by Iranian authorities against a range of activists, journalists and a number of dual citizens and foreign nationals detained in recent years.

Mr Omrani said his cousin, a student at London's Kingston University, had made frequent trips to Iran in the past without any problems.

The UK is currently engaged in a protracted effort to free another woman, the dual British-Iranian national, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, from prison in Tehran. She is serving a five-year sentence for spying - a charge she denied.

Mr Omrani says her cousin is being held in the same section of the prison as Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

At a news conference on Monday, Mr Esmaili said "an Iranian female student" who had been "in charge of the Iran desk at the British Council" had been sentenced for spying.

"The person travelled to the country [Iran] using a false name in order to implement design, plan and lead various projects regarding the implementation of the cultural objectives of the old colonialism [UK] inside Islamic Iran," he added.

"The person was involved in contacting theatre and art groups to implement that very issue of cultural infiltration or cultural ambush."

Mr Esmaili said such actions "drew the attention of Iran's security and intelligence services", which led to the woman's arrest last year.

Files presented at her trial showed she "very quickly and clearly confessed" to passing information to British intelligence agents, he added.

The British Council is the UK's international organisation working in arts and culture, English language, education and civil society. It is a charity governed by Royal Charter and receives a 15% core funding grant from the UK government.

It does not have offices or representatives in Iran and does not work in Iran.

A spokeswoman told the BBC that Ms Amiri, whose "UK-focused" role involved connecting Iranian writers with translators, did not travel to Iran on British Council business.

She said the British Council had not had contact with Amiri since her arrest, which happened while she was visiting a family member.

Its chief executive, Sir CiarĂ¡n Devane, earlier said: "Our colleague's safety and wellbeing remain our first concern, as it has been throughout their detention."

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is seeking further information from Iran.

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