Iran jails two, including UK dual national, for spying for Israel

Ali Johari and Anousheh Ashouri, a dual UK national, handed 10-year jail sentences for espionage offences.

    Iranian authorities shut down the British Council more than a decade ago for alleged 'illegal activities' [File: Vahid Ahmadi/Tasnim News Agency]
    Iranian authorities shut down the British Council more than a decade ago for alleged 'illegal activities' [File: Vahid Ahmadi/Tasnim News Agency]

    Iran has jailed two people, including a British dual national, for more than a decade for spying for Israel and receiving illegal payments.

    Anousheh Ashouri, a woman with British and Iranian citizenship, got 10 years in prison for feeding information to Israel's Mossad spy agency, the Mizan Online website reported quoting judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili on Tuesday.

    She was also handed a two-year prison sentence for receiving 33,000 euros ($36,600) in illicit funds from Israel and ordered to pay the same amount in fines.

    The United Kingdom's Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) said it was supporting the family of Ashouri following the ruling.

    "Our Embassy in Tehran continues to request consular access," an FCO spokesman said in a statement.

    "The treatment of all dual nationals detained in Iran is a priority and we raise their cases at the most senior levels. We urge Iran to let them be reunited with their families," the spokesman added.

    Ali Johari, an Iranian national, was also sentenced to 10 years in prison for various espionage offences, including "widespread connections with Mossad... and meeting with various elements linked to the Zionists", Esmaili said, as quoted by the Mizan Online.

    Johari had been in contact with operatives in India, Laos and Sri Lanka, among other countries, and also travelled to "occupied lands", the judiciary added.

    He had been in the process of "getting citizenship from this country", said Esmaili, in an apparent reference to Israel.

    Johari also received two years in jail for accepting illicit funds and was ordered to pay that unspecified amount in fines, said Esmaili.

    'Cultural infiltration'

    Separately on Tuesday, Esmaili also confirmed that an Iranian appeals court had upheld a 10-year jail sentence to British Council employee Aras Amiri for "cultural infiltration", adding the latter was "already serving her term".

    "This person... was identified by us because of her cultural infiltration in society through arts and her widespread activities," he added.

    London-based Amiri was arrested in Iran in 2018 during a visit to relatives in the country.

    Mizan Online reported her original sentence on May 13, saying she had "made a straightforward confession" after being arrested by Iranian intelligence and security agencies "more than a year ago".

    At the time, Esmaili said she had been tasked with drawing up and managing cultural "infiltration" projects.

    Reacting to the May announcement, the FCO said it was "very concerned" by the case.

    The British Council is a cultural and educational organisation with branches around the world. 

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    Funding from the FCO makes up about 15 percent of its overall income.

    According to the organisation's website, it is not "physically present" in Iran.

    Iranian authorities shut down the British Council more than a decade ago for what Esmaili described as "illegal activities".

    British-Iranian tensions

    The developments came amid heightened tensions between Iran and the UK, a major ally of the United States, with the pair recently embroiled in a bitter spat over the seizure of two oil tankers.

    An Iranian tanker was seized off the British overseas territory of Gibraltar on July 4 on suspicion of shipping oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions.

    That vessel was later released, but Iran continues to hold a British-flagged tanker it seized in the Strait of Hormuz on July 19 for allegedly breaking "international maritime rules".

    Tensions had already been strained between the two sides over the fate of British-Iranian mother Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who was arrested by Iranian authorities in 2016 as she was leaving Tehran.

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    Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a 41-year-old Thomson Reuters Foundation employee, was later put on trial and is now serving a five-year jail sentence for "trying to topple" the Iranian government.

    She has frequently denied the sedition charge levelled against her, insisting she was in the country on a family visit with her daughter.    

    According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Iran has arrested at least 14 dual or foreign nationals since 2014, many of whom HRW said had been charged by courts of "cooperating with a 'hostile state'" without sufficient evidence.

    "This targeted campaign against foreign and dual nationals sends a threatening message to Iranian expatriates and foreigners interested in working in Iran, that their knowledge and expertise are a liability if they visit the country," HRW's Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whiston said in September 2018.

    "Iran's security apparatus has apparently made the despicable decision to use these individuals as bargaining chips to resolve diplomatic disputes," she added.

    Iran does not recognise dual nationality and arrests of Iranians accused of espionage have increased since the Islamic Republic's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said last year there had been "infiltration" by Western agents in the country.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies