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19 Sep 2019, Edition - 1528, Thursday

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World News

Iran ‘jails British Council worker for spying for UK’

bbc.com

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 London-based British Council employee and art student, Aras Amiri, was detained in Iran in March 2018.

Ms Amiri’s cousin said last May that she had been accused of “acting against national security” – a charge that 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.

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.

At a news conference on Monday, Mr Esmaili said the person sentenced to 10 years for spying was “an Iranian female student” who had been “in charge of the Iran desk at the British Council”

“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.

The British Council said last year that it was aware that one of its staff had been detained while making a private family visit, without identifying them as Ms Amiri.

On Monday, its chief executive, Sir Ciarán Devane, said: “We have seen reports that an Iranian national, claimed to be an employee of the British Council, has been sentenced. However we have not been able to confirm that this is our colleague.

“Our colleague’s safety and wellbeing remain our first concern, as it has been throughout their detention.”

The British Council noted that the employee detained last year was not head of “the Iran desk”, but someone who “worked in the UK in a junior role to support and showcase the Iranian contemporary art scene to UK audiences”.

“We are a non-political organisation committed to people-to-people engagement, and our staff are not connected to any espionage agency,” Sir Ciarán added.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office said it was very concerned by the reports from Iran. “British embassy officials in Tehran are in touch with the Iranian government to seek further information,” it added.

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