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Decision expected in espionage trial of French woman Reiss

A decision is expected in the politically charged trial of Clotilde Reiss, a French academic charged with spying in the wake of Iran's post-election unrest. After a final hearing Jan. 16, her lawyer said a decision was likely within the week.


When the French Minister of Foreign Affairs revealed on July 7, 2009, that Clotilde Reiss had been detained at the airport in Tehran, the young academic at the University of Isfahan had already been incarcerated for a week. According to Tehran, she had taken advantage of the post-election crisis in June to "carry out intelligence gathering and encourage rioters”.


The French government reacted in no uncertain terms. Minister of Foreign Affairs Bernard Kouchner denounced the charges against Reiss as “absurd” and made it clear that the incident should not become “a state affair”.  His remarks cut no ice with the Iranian government.

Shaken by the long-running and popular resistance to the controversial re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranian politics continues to face a crisis of legitimacy, of which the Reiss affair was simply another manifestation.

Conspiracy theory

On August 8, Iran’s national press agency Irna reported that Reiss had pleaded guilty. “I shouldn’t have taken part in the demonstrations,” she was reported as saying. Reiss was said to have admitted “to having written a one-page report” about “Iranian politics and its connection to nuclear energy”.

Her testimony was to become the lynchpin of the strategy used by Iran. Using Reiss’s words, the authorities claimed the existence of a conspiracy, accusing the West of being behind the popular post-election unrest. On August 16, after a week of negotiations, Reiss was released on bail but had to remain in the French embassy in Tehran to await a final verdict.

Tensions build between Paris and Tehran

Despite putting up a 200,000-euro bail for the conditional release of the French woman, there was no real progress in her case. A month of negotiations followed, much to the displeasure of Paris.

Responding to a press statement made by the Iranian ambassador to France, on August 31, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy said: “I want to emphasise how much we admire the courage of the Iranian people. I would like to restate that they deserve better leadership than they have now.” The following day the Iranian authorities called this “unacceptable” meddling.

Struggle for influence in the lead-up to the trial

Three weeks later, while being interviewed by France 2, Ahmadinejad hit back, saying: “French people deserve better leadership than the one they have now.”

In September, behind-the-scenes discussions aimed to resolve the issue. On September 22, French daily paper Le Figaro reported rumours that the French Foreign Ministry was looking into the possibility of an exchange between Reiss and Ali Vakili Rad, the Iranian held prisoner for the murder of Chapour Bakhtair, ex-prime minister during the time of the Shah of Iran. Both countries denied the rumour.

In November, as Reiss’s second appearance in court approached, the French embassy in Tehran agreed that “Clotilde would appear in court whenever necessary”, but demanded in return that France receive “a written guarantee that Reiss’s bail would not be challenged while the trial was under way”.

Tehran greeted this demand with the accusation that it was a “violation of official and written commitments from the French government”.

Trial depends on 'the attitude of French leaders’

On November 17, Clotilde appeared before the Revolutionary Court in Tehran for the second time, when the verdict was postponed to December 23. Five days before her third appearance in court, Ahmadinejad affirmed that the young academic’s freedom “depends on the attitude of the French government”, giving rise once again to the hypothesis of a prisoner exchange negotiation between Paris and Tehran.

On December 23, some days after a new round of negotiations, the Iranian court postponed its deliberations but stated that a decision would be made following a final hearing on January 16, when Reiss appeared in court for the fourth time. Following the hearing, Mohammad Ali ahdavi-Sabet, her lawyer, told FRANCE 24 that he hoped to obtain his client's acquittal “in a few days”.

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