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Wednesday May 15 2019

British PM May deeply concerned by jailing of woman in Iran

Picture shows Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May at Downing Street, in London, Britain, May 14, 2019.—REUTERS photo

LONDON: British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday she was deeply concerned about the jailing of a British Council worker in Iran on espionage charges.

Iran said on Monday it had sentenced an Iranian woman to 10 years prison for spying for Britain, as tension rises between Tehran and some Western countries over its nuclear and missile programs.

"It's utterly shocking. I'm deeply concerned by the turn of events," May told parliament, adding that the woman was working for a legitimate organisation that was trying to foster better relations between countries.

"The Foreign Secretary is taking this issue up, the government will press the case and the concerns that have been raised."

AFP adds: "An Iranian citizen in charge of the Iran desk at the... British Council was cooperating with English spying agencies," the Iranian judiciary's news website Mizan Online reported Monday, quoting judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili.

He did not identify the suspect but said she had been sentenced recently after she "made a straightforward confession".

Esmaili added that the suspect, who had been tasked with drawing up and managing cultural "infiltration" projects, had been arrested by Iranian intelligence and security agencies "more than a year ago".

The British Council, a cultural and educational organisation with branches around the world, said in a statement that "it does not have offices or representatives in Iran, and does not do any work in Iran".

Iranian authorities shut down the British Council's office in Tehran more than a decade ago for what Esmaili described as "illegal activities".

Esmaili said that during her confession, the suspect described how she had been recruited, telling investigators about her instructions from the "English security agency".

The spokesperson said she was "an Iranian student who wanted to live and work in the UK", was hired by the British Council and "repeatedly travelled to Iran under aliases... and made connections with artistic and theatre groups".

A London-based British Council employee, Aras Amiri, was arrested in Iran in 2018 during a trip to visit relatives.

It was not immediately clear if she was the person whose sentencing was announced on Monday.

The sentencing comes amid tensions between Iran and Britain over the fate of British-Iranian mother Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who was arrested by Iranian authorities in 2016 as she was leaving Tehran.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who worked for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was put on trial and is now serving a five-year jail sentence for allegedly trying to topple the Iranian government.