A French tourist has been charged with espionage in Iran for capturing aerial photos with a drone near the Iran-Turkmenistan border, in a similar situation to what happened to an Australian travel vlogging couple in 2019.
French-Iranian man, Benjamin Brière, was thrown in jail in May 2020 after being caught flying a drone, and has been sentenced to eight years for being a ‘spy’. Brière was tried behind closed doors in the Revolutionary Court, with his lawyer claiming that he ‘did not have a fair trial in front of impartial judges’.
‘This verdict is the result of a purely political process that is… devoid of any basis,’ Philippe Valent, Brière’s lawyer, told the BBC.
Valent believes Brière is being ‘held hostage to negotiations by a regime which keeps a French citizen arbitrarily detained merely to use him as currency in an exchange’.
France’s foreign ministry labelled the conviction ‘unacceptable’ and it had ‘no basis in fact’, and has claimed Brière as capturing the footage while holidaying in the country during an extended overland trip to Asia.
The French man’s Iranian lawyer, Saeid Dehghan, explained he’s been ‘convicted for cooperation with hostile states against Iran’, and this charge was different to the one his legal team had been preparing to contest for the last 20 months.
While charged for being a ‘spy’, as well as an additional eight-month sentence for spreading propaganda, the Iranian justice system is not something a foreigner wants to become caught up in. It’s plausible Brière isn’t a spy and has been unjustly convicted. The Islamic Republic of Iran has a history of detaining foreigners for minor mishaps, trivial by western standards, and leveraging them as a bargaining chips in prisoner swaps and political negotiations.
One such couple were Australian travel vloggers, Jolie King and Mark Firkin, who were also jailed in the notorious Evin Prison for flying a drone in a sensitive area in June 2019. The couple run a blog, The Way Overland, where they document their trip driving from Western Australia to London.
Inside Imaging noted at the time:
Ironically, the goal of their vlog is to ‘inspire anyone wanting to travel, and also try to break the stigma around travelling to countries which get a bad rap in the media’. – Being holed up in an Iranian prison would seem to run counter to both those goals
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs travel advisory website, Smart Traveller, recommends travellers ‘reconsider’ visiting Iran. Not only is there a ‘volatile security situation’ across several borders, but also ‘civil unrest’ and ‘political violence’.
Crucially, the Smart Traveller website says ‘unauthorised use of drones is illegal’, and visitors should not ‘visit military areas… which are not clearly marked’.
Fortunately, the Morrison government negotiated a prisoner swap deal and the couple were released in October 2019 after three months in prison, according to WAToday. An Iranian student jailed in Brisbane, who was fighting extradition to the US to face conspiracy charges, was exchanged for the Australian couple.
Beyond Smart Traveller there are numerous official and unofficial travel warnings about the dangers of photography in Iran. The UK Government states:
‘Photography near military and other government installations is strictly prohibited. Sensitive government buildings and facilities are often difficult to identify. Take extreme care when taking photographs in any areas that are anything other than very obvious tourist attractions.
Using a laptop or other electronic equipment in public places can be misinterpreted, especially if it contains photographs. You may be arrested and detained on serious criminal charges, including espionage. It’s better to ask before taking photographs of people.’
Photographers heading to Iran should carefully read official travel advisories to ensure their trip can be as safe as possible. And maybe leave the drone at home.