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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Family pleads for Iranian British Council worker arrested in Iran

British Council employee Aras Amiri, a 23-year-old Iranian national, has been held by the authorities since returning for a family visit

Abbas Edalat was held on April 15 after travelling to Iran for a workship. Imperial College London
Abbas Edalat was held on April 15 after travelling to Iran for a workship. Imperial College London

An Iranian woman who works for the British Council has been held in her homeland for more than 50 days after travelling on a private trip to her visit family over the Persian new year.

Mohsen Omrani, a cousin of Ms Amiri, launched an appeal for her freedom on social media, saying she was visiting her sick grandmother at the time of her arrest.

"Aras has been jailed by forces belonging to Iran’s ministry of intelligence," he said, adding she was in the UK as a PhD student at Kingston University.

“Simultaneously she has been working for the British Council,” Mr Omrani said in a post. “She has worked on film festivals and cultural exchanges between UK and Iran, and more importantly some of her activities have been in cooperation with the artistic department of [Iran’s] cultural ministry.

“She never had any problems before,” he said. “She went to Iran this time for a brief visit to see her grandmother who is in hospital.”

Separately, the British Council said in a statement it was aware of the detention of the staff member following the arrest of Iranian national Ms Amiri.

The British Council said Ms Amiri had not been on a work assignment during her visit to Iran. A spokesperson said the Council was aware that “one of our staff has been detained in Iran while making a private family visit, the colleague is an Iranian national”.

British Council offices in Tehran were closed in 2009 as the regime reacted to the launch of the BBC’s Persian service broadcast from London.

“The British Council does not have offices or representatives in Iran. We work remotely to develop long-term people-to-people cultural links with Iran as we do in over 100 other countries,” added the spokesman. "Despite an assertion that this individual has travelled to Iran for work this is not the case."

The British Foreign Office also said Wednesday that it was "urgently seeking information from the Iranian authorities" following unconfirmed reports of the detention of Iranian-British national Mahan Abedin.

The specialist website Iranwire said Mr Abedin had been arrested on national security charges. An active contributor to news websites and satellite television on politics and security, Mr Abedin has not used his Twitter account since February 20.

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Mr Abedin, a regular contributor to the Middle East Eye news website, is also director of the UK-based research group Dysart Consulting, according to the columnist's biography. The phone listed on the consulting company’s website went straight to Mr Abedin’s voicemail.

A handful of British-linked Iranians have been rounded up by the Iranian authorities, presenting a challenge to diplomats who are seeking to maintain officials ties to Tehran. Abbas Edalat, a dual national who is a professor of computer science at Imperial College in London, is the latest confirmed case. He was reported last week to be facing charges of leading an infiltration network.

The US-based Centre for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) could not confirm the arrest of Mr Abedin but said that it followed the pattern of detentions by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a rival powerbase to president Hassan Rouhani.

The detentions of foreign-based Iranians were aimed at the president who had travelled to western capitals to woo expats and persuade them to return home, said CHRI executive director Hadi Ghaemi. “People going back are finding out the government doesn’t have the means to protect them,” he said.

The timing was significant amid increased tensions as US president Donald Trump decides whether to renew the nuclear arms deal with Iran. “This shows that [Iran’s] foreign policy is unpredictable and can be thrown into chaos at any time by the revolutionary guard,” said Mr Ghaemi.

British officials have said the sensitivity of the issues in each case makes it difficult to comment. “We will continue to approach each case in a way that we judge is most likely to secure the outcome we all want," a Foreign Office official said. "Therefore we will not be providing a running commentary on every twist and turn.”

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested at Tehran airport on April 3, 2016 and jailed for five years for sedition. She had denied the charges and dismissed claims that she was seeking to overthrow the government through her work with the philanthropic arm of the Thomson Reuters media group.

Richard Ratcliffe, her husband, has been a vocal of campaigners for dual-national or British linked prisoners held in Tehran and met with Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, last year.

The politician promised maximum efforts to free Mrs Zaghari Ratcliffe, but her husband accused Mr Johnson of not doing enough.