Sept. 28, 2022

Free Benjamin Briere, French hostage in Iran | Pod Hostage Diplomacy

Free Benjamin Briere, French hostage in Iran | Pod Hostage Diplomacy

French citizen and tourist, Benjamin Briere has been held hostage in Iran since May 2020. He has been sentenced to eight years in prison for a crime he did not commit. On the day of his sentencing, the French Foreign Ministry stated that Benjamin’s “completely groundless sentence is unacceptable.” He is one of four known French citizens currently held hostage in Iran. 

On this episode, we have the honour of speaking to Benjamin’s sister, Blandine Briere to find out what we can do to help bring him back home to France. Blandine walks us through Benjamin’s disappearance when he was in Iran, finding out he had been arrested and placed in solitary confinement for over a month, his hunger strike in prison, his unfair trial as well as how Benjamin and Blandine have both been coping with this trauma. 

We also discuss what the Iranian authorities, French government and European Union should do. As part of this conversation, we discuss the open letter Blandine and the families of other European hostages in Iran wrote to Josep Borrell Fontelles, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. We then end this episode talking about how journalists and the public can help bring Benjamin home.

If you prefer, you can watch the video version of this interview on YouTube

For more information on Benjamin Briere, please check out the following:

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Transcript

Free Benjamin Briere, French hostage in Iran | Pod Hostage Diplomacy

SPEAKERS

Daren Nair, Blandine Briere

 

Daren Nair  00:05

Welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. We work to free hostages and the unjustly detained around the world. Together with their families, we share their stories and let you know how you can help bring them home.

 

Elizabeth Whelan  00:18

Now, when it comes to using the family to get... for Russia to get what they want, if that's the case, they've picked the wrong family, because I'm not going to carry water for the Russian authorities.

 

Daren Nair  00:28

These are some of the most courageous and resilient people among us.

 

Mariam Claren  00:32

I never thought that my mother, Nahid Taghavi, will ever have a link to negotiations in Vienna about the JCPOA. That's so crazy.

 

Daren Nair  00:43

People who have never given up hope.

 

Paula Reed  00:46

Trevor told his girlfriend to tell me to... to be strong. So, I'm trying to be strong for Trevor.

 

Joey Reed  00:50

You know, if Trevor can cope with what he's dealing with...

 

Paula Reed  00:53

Exactly.

 

Joey Reed  00:53

 We can sure cope with the stress.

 

Daren Nair  00:55

People who will never stop working to reunite their families. 

 

Joey Reed  01:00

We'd like to meet with the President. We believe that, you know, he has... he's surrounded by lots of experienced and educated advisors. But I don't believe that any of them have ever had a child taken hostage by a foreign country, especially not a superpower like Russia.

 

Daren Nair  01:15

And we will be right there by their side until their loved one comes back home.

 

Richard Ratcliffe  01:20

Because if enough people care, then the right people will care enough.

 

Daren Nair  01:24

I'm Daren Nair, and I've been campaigning with many of these families for years. When I first started campaigning with these families, I noticed they struggled to get the media attention they needed. So, I decided to create this podcast, which is a safe space for the families to speak as long as they need to about their loved ones, and what needs to be done to bring them home.

 

Mariam Claren  01:45

Nobody can prepare you for what our family's going through. Even if someone had told me one year before, in one years, this is going to happen. Prepare yourself. It's impossible.

 

Daren Nair  01:59

Thank you for listening, and welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. Welcome to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. French citizen and tourist, Benjamin Briere, has been wrongfully imprisoned in Iran since May 2020. On 25th January this year, Benjamin was sentenced to eight years in prison for a crime he did not commit. On the day of his sentencing, the French Foreign Ministry released a statement stating the following. "We were extremely concerned to learn that Benjamin Briere was sentenced today to eight years in prison for spying, in quotes, and eight months for, quote unquote, propaganda against the regime. This completely groundless sentence is unacceptable." That was an excerpt from a statement released by the French Foreign Ministry. Iran has a long history of taking foreign nationals hostage to extract concessions from their home country. This is state-sponsored hostage-taking, also known as hostage diplomacy. Today, we have the honour of speaking to Benjamin's sister. Blandine Briere. Blandine, we're so sorry for what you, Benjamin and your family are going through. We will do everything we can to help. Thank you for joining us. 

 

Blandine Briere  03:12

Thank you.

 

Daren Nair  03:13

Can you please walk us through what happened to your brother?

 

Blandine Briere  03:16

So, in May, in May 2020, we, actually during his trip, we used to call each other every... every day or every two days. And at the end of May 2020, I didn't have any news from him since only three days, but I knew that he will... he will... he would have told me that he... he hasn't had network where he... where he were. And he didn't tell me anything. So, yeah, I was wondering what... what was happening and... and after, I asked to his community, actually to the people. I told the... the embassy that we... we're missing Ben. We don't know where he is, and we don't have any news from him. So, they... they called the... the... the, yeah, they called the... the security in Iran to... to... to go on to... to find him. But at the same time, I asked to the people that... Benjamin's friend that were in Iran, that he used to be with them, to... to... to try to find out... to find out what it was, what happened, and actually they... they tried to find... to find him with their... with their own car, with their... by renting car, by... by asking people around, by knowing his last position. We knew his last position, so they... they just went over there and tried to find him and... and it's actually thanks to... to these people they found out where he were and someone told me where he were, and that... that he was arrested by the police, and then I informed the the embassy that where he were.

 

Daren Nair  04:51

We're so sorry to hear that. So, I understand that your brother's being held in a prison in Mashhad. What are the conditions of his detention? Is he being held in solitary confinement, or is he being held in a cell with other people?

 

Blandine Briere  05:05

He is in Mashhad since two years, but we didn't heard about it... we didn't hear about him for months. He was in solitary confinement for months being interrogated and being psychological torture and... and stuff like that. So, we... I heard him... he called me one month after, just telling me that everything was okay. And the phone call just last one minute, just to tell him that he was alive and everything was okay. And then, after that, he was, again one month in solitary confinement for again, one month. So, he spent two months in solitary confinement and then being transferred by in... the Mashhad Prison, then he could have consular visit. He did... he did have a consular visit after, I think, four months of imprisonment. So, now his conditions are just so hard, and nobody speaks his language. He's just in unsanitary conditions that what he said, we... he's with many people, sometimes he's changing the dormitory... he's... he's going from one dormitory to another with sometimes thirteen people, sometimes thirty people, sometimes four people, sometimes weird people, sometimes dangerous people. So, he is changing always. and that's quite hard, because of this unsanitary condition and the fact that nobody speaks French, any or even English. So, he has to learn Farsi to... to... to... to, yeah, to talk with people and try to have something to focus on.

 

Daren Nair  06:46

Does your brother, Benjamin, have any medical conditions? And if so, has he been given the medical care he needs?

 

Blandine Briere  06:52

He don't really need special specific medical care. But we knew that his... his condition is just deteriorating... deteriorating, sorry, day by day. So, he went in a hunger strike in January for more than... than a month. So, we know that he's not in good health, for sure. And it's... you don't see any doctors or stuff that could help to... for his mental or physical health. So, yeah, we were really scared about this as well. Now, your brother went on hunger strike in December last year, right? Can you tell us more about this? Yeah, we... he start his hunger strike on... on the 25th of December. And he made it for more than a year, sorry, for more than a month. And because he was supposed to call us for... for Christmas and the guard on site just said, "no, you can't... you can't call today." And he was just tired of this psychological torture, and he said, "okay, so I need to do something. I need to do something from where I am,  from what I can do from where I am is just stop eating." So, he  tried being... he just wanted to show that he could fight on... at the place he is. So, yeah, he... that the only thing you can do to... to fight over there. And it's been a lot for... for him and for us, and it's really stressful for everybody so that he has to do this. 

 

Daren Nair  08:27

Has your brother been given access to a lawyer? 

 

Blandine Briere  08:30

Yes, of course. Yeah. He has an access to a lawyer, but a lawyer where he is is trying to do... she's trying to do his best, but still, it's Iranian trial that we know that it's everything is unfair, that his right to defend is not really appropriate or really considered. So yeah, he has... he has a lawyer, but we don't even know if... if it does help for that kind of situation that we know that he is just a pawn. So, justice won't have any place in that... in that situation.

 

Daren Nair  09:08

I absolutely agree. Iran is notorious for its unfair judicial system. So, can you please let us know what Benjamin's trial itself was like?

 

Blandine Briere  09:18

Benjamin's trial is just, yeah, a comic soap opera. It's just... it's just funny how it happened, because he didn't know he has a trial on the day he was. So, he went there, okay, and nobody was there. There were only one cam... yeah, there were one camera that was filming the trial. We suppose it is for the... for the local TV propaganda maybe, we don't know this, but he didn't really have the right to... to defend, of course and... and then... then, sorry, then the name of the other charges changed after the trial that he was to... to be. He went from propa... from espionage and propaganda to one another... another name that... that the maximum charge is ten years, so he could... he... eight years... I don't know if I'm clear, but it's just... it's a parodic trial. It's just this. He didn't have really, he didn't has... you didn't need to defend because it doesn't do anything on his case. 

 

Daren Nair  10:36

Yeah, that's a common experience for many foreign nationals currently held hostage in Iran, or have been held hostage in Iran previously. It's just a notoriously unfair trial. The charges are ridiculous. Unlike other countries that practice hostage diplomacy like Russia, for instance, at least the charge, even though it's false, it seems it comes across as possible. Whereas in Iran, it's just ridiculous. They don't even try to come up with a realistic charge. So, when was the last time you...

 

Blandine Briere  11:09

Actually, a realistic charge won't... won't work in his case, because we don't have any... we don't have any proof, or we don't have any file on his trial, and we don't have anything to defend him. So, that... this is how it's parodic. We don't have any file and... and real charges that... that's been explained by... by files and by proofs.

 

Daren Nair  11:30

So, he wasn't... your lawyer wasn't given access to Benjamin's case file.

 

Blandine Briere  11:35

No, for sure. We didn't... we didn't. We'd never had any file, any proof, any... any formula that say the charge is that... that. Even now, we don't have any... the results of the trial. We don't have any paper or anything that prove that the... what happened is his trial and, yeah, it's... it's we don't have any... any files at all.

 

Daren Nair  11:59

Yeah, so that's because, I mean, that's common with Iran when the charge is, quote unquote, security charges. So basically, they said we can't share the evidence. It will compromise our security apparatus and intelligence gathering. That's... that's how they find a way not to share any information with you. And that's... that's usually what happens with most of the foreign nationals they take hostage. When was the last time you spoke to your brother? And how is he coping?

 

Blandine Briere  12:26

I spoke to him a week ago, because we used to have him on the phone every two or three weeks. Once again, it's when the guards on site are, "okay, it's fine to call," and he's fighting every day for his right to call, so now... now he's just... he can't bear the situation anymore. It's just really hard for him. And he... he doesn't have any hope. He doesn't have any clue. He doesn't have any... Yeah, he's just so tired of this situation. And he doesn't have anything to hold on to. We don't have any clue, any... any deadlines in dates that will help us to keep hoping. So. So, yeah, it's really hard for him. And he's trying to focus on his everyday life, on his books and stuff, to not thinking about the time that is just flying. And since more than two years now. So, right, it's really, really hard for him.

 

Daren Nair  13:23

Again, I'm sorry to hear that. Now, I know this has been a very traumatic experience for you and your family as well, most likely one of the worst periods of your life. How have you and your family been coping with this trauma?

 

Blandine Briere  13:34

It's just... yeah, I don't have any vocabulary to say more than it's just really hard for us to endure this situation since more than two years that our lives depends on it, that our worlds depends on it, because I'm every day on this case to trying to do something. But it seems to be useless, because we see that nothing happened and that Europe doesn't answer us, and France doesn't... doesn't do anything concrete that we can... that we could see that we could hold on to, and so we are... our life depends on this case. And we know that it could be resolved in one day like that, and we don't know... we won't know how, but we just hope that they will come as soon as possible. And, but yeah, our lives depend on it, and it's in every... it's... it's an everyday work for me to... to... to try to make things move and try to... to... to keep Benjamin on the surface and telling people that he's still over there and he's still unju... he's still unjustly detained and... and still nothing has been done. And, so it's an everyday work... work for us.

 

Daren Nair  14:46

What should the Iranian authorities do?

 

Blandine Briere  14:48

Just stop that... that policy that is hostage policy and this mechanics that make people broke and find another way to... to... to make your point, basically, and if they... they just ruin lives and... and innocent lives, and regular people, random people who don't have anything to do with this. It's just problem that bigger than us, and that we don't understand, and just leave regular people out of this diplomatic stuff. Yeah, just... they need justice to... to, yeah, just be fair, and I don't know, it's not really impacting towards... Yeah, they are just random and tourists and fathers and sons and mothers that are unjustly imprisoned, so. It isn't... It seems... I'm not sure it's resolving any diplomatic issues. It's just ruined lives.

 

Daren Nair  15:59

Absolutely. What should the French government do?

 

Blandine Briere  16:04

Move, because today. we have... they have... they have four hostages, French... There are four French hostages... hostages in Iran right now and more than ten European hostages, so of course, they need to do something, of course, they need to let us know something, to let us know that something might happened, or I don't know. But they are still... nothing has been done. And nothing concrete and nothing public has been done. Even if it's not public, actually, I don't need... I don't know that. What will... what will they do? But we need to hold on to... hold to something that they need to do. But yeah, they need to actually do just to move. More than ten European citizens are over there and four French people. It's just crazy and unsupportable to hear. We are... we are France so we think we are Occidental, a developed country that needs to take care of its citizens. So, it's obvious, like, how come nothing happened?

 

Daren Nair  17:10

If you could speak directly to French President, Emmanuel Macron, what would you say to him?

 

Blandine Briere  17:17

I'm not... I won't have any... I'm not in... I don't have any diplomatic discourse... speech. I don't have any diplomatic speech to tell him. I won't know how to talk to him, because I'm, once again, like Benjamin, a random people, regular people that don't know anything about diplomatic stuff. I just want him to know that he's just ruining lives, and... and all families are just waiting for their loved ones. So, I've just an innocent speech, just let him free and just be, that justice needs to be done. And... and yeah, that's it. Even we know it could take times. But now it just... it is more than two years for Benjamin and much more for the others. So, of course something has to be done, and time is just running. And as we... as we saw on the press, even if it's not concrete yet and any US hostages are free now, but we know that US made the freedom of their hostage a priority, a priority in any... any deal signatures, it's just they show us that it's a priority for them. And we didn't hear anything about Europe or France about it. We don't even know if it's a priority. We need them to act. Like, I don't know, I'm not supporting any prisoners transfer or... I don't know. I'm not in that deals. But we need them to show us that it is a priority for France and Europe, because of this, more than ten hostages. It's just crazy to hear.

 

Daren Nair  18:59

The US government has a special team within their State Department to deal with Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad. This team is called the Office of the US Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, led by Ambassador Roger Carstens. Now, I know France has freed hostages in Iran. One of them was academic, Roland Marchal, who I interviewed on Episode 5 of this podcast. Does France have something similar? And if not, should they?

 

Blandine Briere  19:29

I'm not sure I'm on the good place to judge if they need specific services to... for hostages in Iran or abroad. But for sure, they... they need to... to hurry and, yeah, they take care about... about... They take care about Benjamin. He has consular visits that helps to know his condition, his physical and mental condition. Okay, anyway, but after more than two years, we... two years, we need much more. And now I'm not sure it's enough for us today. And I'm not sure they're doing everything they could, because it's just more than two years,. We let... we let the time goes just to... to... just to be patient and to wait that they do their job. But after more than two years, we need much more, and we need something concrete. So, yeah, ask them much more, much more than let me know that Benjamin has seen the consul. And I know he's lucky to see a consul every two or three months, that everybody's not as lucky as he is as lucky, for sure. It's the good word, but I need more. I don't really care now about this consular visit. I don't want any much more. And I know, he's in kind of good health. He will keep on trying to live and keep his mind aware, but after more than two years, yeah, we need maybe specific teams, as you said. We need concrete actions.

 

Daren Nair  21:12

What should the European Union do? I know you, and a few other European families with loved ones held hostage in Iran, recently published an open letter to the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell Fontelles. Can you please tell us more about this letter and what the European Union should do?

 

Blandine Briere  21:35

We... we... we wrote this open letter because we learned about the US hostages, the US that are asking for the freedom of these hostages. So, we asked the Europe to do the same, to make the hostage our... our loved one a priority to any signature, any diplomatic deal. And I think, yeah, you will, of course, need to do something for more than ten families and people that are held in Iran.

 

Daren Nair  22:08

Have you received the response to this letter?

 

Blandine Briere  22:10

We didn't receive any response yet. Of course, we still hope that we could have... we could have one, because I think we made enough noise with that letter that many medias covered it. So, they know about what we did. So, of course, we... we we need an answer, we need a consideration of our loved one and our families. And just our letter and the thing that we... we gather, we all gather together to work together to show the European problem. The big problem that Europe face right now and that we face since many years, of course, we hope for an answer, a concrete one, obviously. 

 

Daren Nair  23:05

What should the international community do to bring your brother and the other hostages back home?

 

Blandine Briere  23:10

I don't know anything about this. I don't have any... any feedbacks of what we do. I don't have anything about this. I'm sometimes learning things on the press and not on the... on the side where I'm supposed to be, that I'm supposed to have infos from... first, maybe, as... as I'm in Paris. I don't have any clue of what's happening. That's crazy.

 

Daren Nair  23:39

What can journalists and news editors do to help? I know you mentioned that they did cover your letter to Josep Borrell Fontelles. What else can journalists do? Because I know keeping your brother's name in the media, continuing to raise awareness makes... makes him a... keeps him a priority for the French government. What else can journalists do to help?

 

Blandine Briere  24:08

First of all, journalists are just really, really important and really good assets for us, because, obviously, it helps Benjamin to stay on the surface, to... to just that many people will learn about his... his history thanks to the medias. So, we got... we just... we just need them to keep on writing, keep on talking, keep on diffusing Benjamin's and Europeans' hostages history. But yeah, journalists are... I didn't realise it before this... this situation, but for sure, we are in the strongest country with a strong liberties of the press, and they are such a good assets for us, and we need to work together and we already do. But I'm really sad to say this, because my asset is supposed to be the Europe and the... and our embassy and our MFA to... to fight with it. But yeah, as regular people, we... we do what we can from our level, and... and, yeah, medias are a good assets to help us to speak louder and to make the situation to be everyday, every time we can to keep our families and hostages in the public mind, in everybody's mind, to keep on fighting for their situation.

 

Daren Nair  25:39

Now, what can the public do to help? Because I know in many hostage cases or wrongful detainee cases, members of the... we tend to ask members of the public to write to their politicians, and ask them, "what are you doing to bring Benjamin Briere home? And what are you doing to make sure that this doesn't happen to any other French citizen travelling abroad?" So, in your case, or at least in your opinion, what can the public do to help bring your brother home?

 

Blandine Briere  26:09

Just to notice that I know that the MFA did effort. And obviously, it's normal to done... to did this... to do this, because they warned... they are now warning people about going in Iran, about the... on their website, to just saying that it's a red... red zone that no tourists should go. Yes, of course, we can imagine many actions that people could do to help to help us. Yeah, as many noise... as many noise as possible as when, to... to... to make everybody knows about the hostage in Iran in general. And, yeah, we could imagine many actions. So, everybody needs to do noise about our situation and to keep pressuring our governments.

 

Daren Nair  27:05

Blandine, we're almost at the end of our interview. Is there anything else you'd like to mention?

 

Blandine Briere  27:10

Yeah, the more people who know about Benjamin's and Europeans', the hostages' situation, the more we... we be pressuring our government, and the more they will have to do something and they won't have any other choice. Just do something as quick as possible, as quickly as possible. And, yeah, we just need to keep the pressure on and keep talking about this situation.

 

Daren Nair  27:39

Blandine, we'll be right here by your side until your brother comes back home. Thank you for taking the time to speak to us today. 

 

Blandine Briere  27:45

Thank you.

 

Daren Nair  27:51

Thank you for listening to Pod Hostage Diplomacy. Thank you for giving your time and for showing these families that they're not alone, that there are good, caring people out there, willing to stand by their side and help in any way possible.

 

Richard Ratcliffe  28:06

Because if enough people care, then the right people will care enough. This is a basic rule of thumb that is true for all campaigning.

 

Daren Nair  28:14

If you haven't already, please subscribe to our fortnightly newsletter called The Hostage Briefing. It's the best way to keep up to date with the cases we're working on as well as new episodes. You can subscribe to this newsletter using the link in the description of this podcast episode that you're currently listening to. Thanks again and take care.