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Aras Amiri.

British Council Employee Sentenced to Ten Years in Iranian Prison for Alleged Spying

Aras Amiri, the thirty-three-year-old art student and British Council employee who was accused of spying for the UK and arrested in Iran last March, has been handed a ten-year prison sentence, The Times reports. Amiri, an Iranian citizen who had lived in London for ten years with a residence permit, returned to Iran to visit her grandmother when she was detained in Tehran.

While Iran has not publicly confirmed that Amiri is the woman who has been sentenced, Gholamhossein Esmaili, a judiciary spokesman, said on state television that the detainee worked for the British Council, an independent cultural organization that promotes educational opportunities and cultural relations between the UK and other countries, and claimed that she had confessed to collaborating with the Britain’s foreign intelligence agency on “cultural infiltration” projects.

“We are very concerned by reports that an Iranian British Council employee has been sentenced to jail on charges of espionage,” the UK Foreign Office said. “We have not been able to confirm any further details at this stage and are urgently seeking further information.”

Hamed Yousefi, the Chicago-based art historian who organized the exhibition “Recalling the Future” (2014) at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London with Amiri, told the Art Newspaper that “the Iranian government is paranoid about all forms of international contact. The charges have changed also, and as far as I’m aware have been enforced by the security services rather than through an independent judicial process.”

Before her arrest, Amiri was studying for a philosophy of art postgraduate degree at Kingston University and had been working on film festivals and cultural exchange initiatives between the UK and Iran. She is one of several Iranians with British connections who have been convicted of spying and similar charges.

Amiri’s case has been compared with that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a researcher for the Thomson Reuters Foundation charity, who has been detained since 2016 and is currently serving a five-year prison term for allegedly spying in the same section of Tehran’s Evin Prison as Amiri.

Abbas Edalat, an antiwar activist, academic, and professor at the Imperial College of London, was also arrested in April of last year when he was invited to speak at an academic event in Tehran. As of last May, Iran was holding thirty dual citizens, including at least five Iranian Americans.

The New York Times reported last year that Iran’s motivations in such cases were unclear, but analysts believe they are linked to national policy decisions, such as the negotiation of international nuclear deals, and other disputes.