Iran Gives Death Sentence to Former Defense Official, a Dual U.K. Citizen

Iran’s judiciary announced on Wednesday that a former deputy defense minister had been convicted and sentenced to death on charges of spying for Britain, where he had lived for a decade as a dual national.

Alireza Akbari, who had served the Islamic Republic in senior roles until his departure to Britain, was arrested in 2019 in Iran on allegations of being a “super spy” for MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service, and passing it classified national security information, according to a statement released Wednesday by Iran’s intelligence ministry.

The news of a dual national at risk of execution comes at a time of heighten tensions for Iran’s government both at home and abroad. Iran has been roiled for months by a popular protest movement demanding an end to the theocratic regime, which in recent weeks has executed four demonstrators in a widening crackdown aimed at crushing dissent.

Western countries, including Britain, have condemned Iran’s government for deploying violence against protesters and for the recent executions, and have slapped targeted sanctions on officials and groups involved in the crackdown.

Britain on Wednesday demanded that Iran halt the execution of Mr. Akbari and immediately release him, and requested consulate access to him in Tehran. Iran’s government does not recognize dual nationality and prosecutes dual nationals as Iranian citizens.

“This is a politically motivated act by a barbaric regime that has total disregard for human life,” James Cleverly, Britain’s foreign minister, tweeted on Wednesday.

Mr. Akbari’s case was made public for the first time on Tuesday when his wife, Maryam Samadi, told BBC Persian that the family had remained quiet in hopes of resolving the case through their official contacts in Iran, but that her husband’s fate had suddenly changed in the past 48 hours.

Ms. Samadi said Iranian authorities had informed the family that they would be granted a final visit with her husband before his imminent execution. He had been moved to solitary confinement, she said, where prisoners on death row are typically taken before hanging.

In an audio message obtained by BBC Persian, Mr. Akbari said he had visited Iran in 2018 and 2019, met with the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, and given him a shirt and a bottle of perfume as gifts. He said he was accused of obtaining classified information in that meeting and providing it to a foreign state.

Mr. Akbari suggested that Iran’s intelligence ministry wanted to “take revenge” on Britain by executing him, and asked why Mr. Shamkhani had not been arrested if he had leaked classified information to him. Mr. Akbari served as Mr. Shamkhani’s deputy when Mr. Shamkhani was defense minister in the early 2000s. He said the judge had told him he had no power to arrest Mr. Shamkhani but would “destroy” Mr. Akbari.

Mr. Akbari said in the message that he had been tortured and given psychedelic drugs that pushed him “to the brink of insanity” and forced him to confess. It was not clear when the message was recorded.

Analysts said the details of this case are scant, making it hard to determine Iran’s motives for Mr. Akbari’s arrest and harsh sentence. They could range from a tit-for-tat response to recent Western sanctions, to a posturing anti-Western stance and political infighting among factions.

“High-level arrests in Iran, especially those involving foreign governments, often have more than one motive,” said Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iran expert who teaches international relations at Columbia University and a former dual national prisoner in Iran. “It would be a massive escalation to execute a British Iranian citizen.”

On Tuesday, Iran’s judiciary also sentenced a Belgian aid worker, Olivier Vandecasteele, to 40 years in prison and 74 lashes on charges of espionage, money laundering and currency smuggling. Mr. Vandecasteele, who was arrested in February of last year, has denied all charges.

The Belgian foreign ministry issued a statement calling the detention arbitrary and said Iran had provided no information on the case and its ambassador would be summoned.

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