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Iran executes British citizen on spying charges despite Western pressure

Alireza Akbari, a dual citizen of Iran and the United Kingdom, served as deputy defense minister of Iran in the 2000s. (Getty Images)
5 min

LONDON — Iran executed Alireza Akbari, a dual British citizen who previously served as a senior defense official in Tehran, in what British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described as “a callous and cowardly act, carried out by a barbaric regime with no respect for the human rights of their own people.”

Mizan, a news service linked to the Iranian judiciary, said early Saturday that Akbari had been hanged without providing details on when the execution took place. It previously said that Akbari had been sentenced to death for carrying out espionage activities on behalf of MI6, the British foreign intelligence service. Iran has a history of making unsupported claims of espionage when it makes arrests.

“This will not stand unchallenged,” said British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly in a statement, adding that Britain would summon Tehran’s top diplomat in London “to make clear our disgust at Iran’s actions.”

The British Foreign Office previously said it had lobbied Tehran for Akbari’s release but was not granted consular access. Iran does not recognize dual citizenship. The Foreign Office announced sanctions in the form of a travel ban and asset freeze on Iranian Prosecutor General Jafar Montazeri in hopes of sending a “wider signal” on Britain’s “commitment to backing condemnation with action.”

Vedant Patel, deputy spokesman at the State Department, on Friday called the Iranian charges “politically motivated” and said the execution would be “unconscionable.”

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The theocratic regime in Iran has launched a brutal crackdown on demonstrators after a wave of anti-government protests began in September. Tehran has executed at least four people in relation to the protests, while at least 520 demonstrators have been killed, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency. Iran has repeatedly made the unsupported claim that Western powers and Israel were behind the demonstrations.

Akbari’s wife told BBC Persian earlier this week that he had been taken to solitary confinement and that relatives had been told that any visit to Akbari would be his last. She added that he had been detained for over three years.

Akbari, who was 61, had served as deputy defense minister during the administration of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, a cleric who favored reform and was in power between 1997 and 2005. During this time, Akbari served under defense minister Ali Shamkhani, now the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran and at whose invitation Akbari returned to Iran before he was arrested, Akbari’s brother told BBC Persian.

Akbari also played a role in the cease-fire that ended a bloody eight-year war with Iraq in 1988, according to the Associated Press. He reportedly lived in Britain for over 10 years.

Iranian state media this week broadcast a highly edited video showing Akbari’s alleged confessions and claimed that Akbari had received more than $2.3 million in return for spying for Britain after being initially contacted by British intelligence agents during a visa interview at the embassy in Tehran.

One caption in the confession video said Akbari had provided information about Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian nuclear scientist killed in an attack outside Tehran in 2020. In a later section, the video said he had been arrested for spying in 2008 but traveled to Britain after he was released on bail.

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BBC Persian released a recording it said Akbari made from prison. In it, Akbari said he had been threatened with death if he did not confess. Akbari said his “will was broken” and he was “driven to the point of insanity” by torture and psychedelic drugs during more than 3,500 hours of interrogations.

Iran had “no proof” of the claims against him and had acted to “take revenge” against Britain, he said, adding that he had been accused of obtaining information from Shamkhani “in exchange for a bottle of perfume and a shirt.”

Research published last year, cited by the British Parliament, suggests that least 66 foreign or dual nationals have been arrested by Iran since 2010, including around 15 Britons. They include British Iranian Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, who was freed last year following six years of imprisonment and house arrest in Iran.

In November, Iranian state media reported that another British national, who also holds Iranian citizenship, was arrested on accusations of communicating with foreign news channels, according to Reuters.

Dissidents based abroad have also faced threats in recent years. Jamshid Sharmahd, a German Iranian citizen and California resident in his 60s, was allegedly kidnapped during a flight layover in Dubai in August 2020 and taken to Iran, where he was accused of leading a “terrorist” group, a charge he denies. His daughter said he faces the death penalty after being accused of “corruption on earth.”

In 2019, Ruhollah Zam, a prominent exiled journalist living in France, was arrested and extradited to Iran after being lured across the border to Iraq. He, like Akbari, was also convicted of “corruption on earth” and was executed in December 2020.

Ang reported from Seoul.