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French citizen returns home after Iran prison ordeal

Thursday, 13 June, 2024 , 16:04

Paris, June 13, 2024 (AFP) — Frenchman Louis Arnaud returned to Paris on Thursday after his release from a more than 20-month prison ordeal in Iran, but a dozen Europeans are still detained in the Islamic republic.

Activists and some Western governments, including France, accuse Iran of exercising a strategy of taking foreign nationals as hostages to force concessions from the West.

Arnaud was held in Iran from September 2022 and sentenced last year to five years in jail on national security charges. He was described by his family as a traveller who wanted to see the world, and who was innocent of all charges.

Emerging from a small plane at Le Bourget airport outside Paris, a visibly tired but smiling Arnaud shook hands with Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne before embracing his parents, according to images aired on television.

Arnaud, 36, linked arms with his relatives as they entered a private room at the airport out of view of the cameras.

"I am very glad to welcome one of our hostages who was indeed held arbitrarily in Iran," Sejourne said.

"Our diplomatic service is still at work" to free three other French citizens: Jacques Paris, Cecile Kohler and a man named only as Olivier held in Iranian jails, he added.

In a statement after his release, Arnaud's mother Sylvie said "we have been waiting for our son to return for almost 21 months. A wait that should never have existed.

"Our thoughts are with those who are still waiting for the return of their loved ones and we will remain at their side until they can experience this same happiness," she added.

The circumstances of Arnaud's freeing were not immediately clear. Announcing his release on X late Wednesday, President Emmanuel Macron made a point of thanking our "Omani friends and all those who worked towards this happy outcome".

Oman has frequently worked as a mediator between Iran and the West in such situations. A diplomatic source told AFP that Arnaud had been flown back to Paris via Oman.

- 'Very, very worried' -

Kohler's sister Noemie Kohler welcomed Arnaud's release but stressed the family had not heard from Cecile since April 13.

"We're very, very worried," she said. While the family remains in regular contact with French diplomats, the lack of progress is frustrating, she said.

Kohler and her partner Jacques Paris were detained in Iran in May 2022 accused of spying.

"We know that they are being held in absolutely appalling conditions," said Noemie Kohler.

Arnaud set off in July 2022 on a round-the-world trip that led him to Iran.

It was "a country he had long dreamt of visiting for the richness of its history and its welcoming people", Sylvie Arnaud said several months ago.

But he was arrested in September 2022 with other Europeans accused of joining demonstrations over the death of Mahsa Amini.

Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd, died after her arrest by the morality police in Tehran for allegedly breaching the Islamic republic's strict dress code for women.

While Arnaud's travelling companions were soon released, he was kept in prison before his November sentencing on charges of making propaganda against the regime and harming Iranian state security.

Frenchman Benjamin Briere and French-Irish dual national Bernard Phelan were freed by Iran in 2023 for "humanitarian reasons".

Both had been severely weakened by a hunger strike.

Besides the three French still in prison, Tehran is holding nationals and dual nationals from European countries including Britain, Germany and Sweden.

Two of them -- German Jamshid Sharmahd and Swede Ahmadreza Djalali -- risk execution after being sentenced to death on charges their families say are utterly false.

Also held is Swedish EU diplomat Johan Floderus whom prosecutors want sentenced to death on spying charges his family strongly rejects.

Activists say Swedish nationals have been especially targeted over the life sentence given in Sweden to former Iranian prison official Hamid Noury for his role in mass executions in Iran in 1988.

According to Washington, the release of the five US citizens in September last year means there are no more US nationals detained in Iran.