Tourist Imprisoned in Iran Begins Hunger Strike After Denied Christmas Call With Family

Benjamin Brière, a French tourist imprisoned in Iran, started a hunger strike on Saturday after he was denied a phone call with his family on Christmas Day, according to his sister and lawyer.

Brière, 36, claims he has been experiencing mistreatment in prison, and after "one more mistreatment" after the refusal of the phone call with his family, he began the hunger strike, his sister Blandine Brière told the Associated Press.

Blandine Brière said that her brother wants to "protest…and therefore put his health at risk to move things forward."

"At the moment, we don't see any move, we have no hope of change, of freedom," she was quoted by the AP.

After taking photos in a desert area where photography is banned and asking questions on social media concerning the country's mandatory Islamic headscarf for women, Benjamin Brière was arrested in May 2020.

In March, he was charged with spying and "spreading propaganda against the system."

However, Phillippe Valent, Brière's Paris-based lawyer, wrote a statement saying that his client has never been brought in front of a judge and has no scheduled date for a trial. It said he is "not a spy nor a criminal, but a tourist whose travel is continuing in an aberrant and unfair way in Iranian prisons."

Benjamin Brière, Arrested, Imprisonment, Iran, Hunger Strike
In May 2020, Benjamin Brière was arrested after taking photos in a desert area where photography is banned and asking questions on social media regarding Iran’s mandatory Islamic headscarf for women. In the above photo, tourists are guided as they visit Iran's National Museum in the capital of Tehran on October 2, 2019. Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

Blandine Brière described the "difficult" situation of her brother, who doesn't speak the local language, in the prison of the northeastern city of Mashahd, including "psychological torture" when guards promise him a phone call and later say no.

"Physically he was doing OK (until now), but morally he has really started to sink," she said. "It's getting critical. It is really a desperate call for help."

Valent said "the feeling of abandonment and distress" has led Brière "to embark on a hunger strike in order to alert Iranian authorities and French authorities about the absurdity of his detention."

The French Foreign Ministry said in a statement Monday that French officials in Paris and Tehran have been very closely monitoring the situation and that Brière has been contacted by the French Embassy on Monday.

There was no immediate comment from Iranian officials.

Rights groups accuse hardliners in Iran's security agencies of using foreign detainees as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West. Tehran denies it, but there have been such prisoner exchanges in the past.

In March 2020, Iran and France swapped French researcher Roland Marchal for Iranian engineer Jalal Ruhollahnejad.

Marchal was arrested in June 2019 alongside fellow researcher Fariba Adelkhah, an anthropologist with dual French-Iranian citizenship. Adelkhah, who was given a five-year sentence for "gathering and collusion" against Iran's security, was granted a furlough with no deadline in October 2020 and is required to stay at her sister's house in Tehran and wear an electronic monitoring bracelet.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Benjamin Brière, Arrested, Imprisonment, Iran, Hunger Strike
Blandine Brière said that her brother Benjamin, who is currently detained in Iran after being arrested in May 2020, wants to “protest…and therefore put his health at risk to move things forward,” AP reported. In this photo, Blandine Brière poses at The Roland Garros 2021 French Open tennis tournament in Paris on May 31. Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images