UK Urges Iran to Halt Execution of British–Iranian Alireza Akbari

UK Urges Iran to Halt Execution of British–Iranian Alireza Akbari
Alireza Akbari, Iran's former deputy defence minister, speaks during an interview with Khabaronline in Tehran, Iran, in this undated picture obtained on Jan. 12, 2023. (Khabaronline/WANA/Handout via Reuters)
Alexander Zhang

The UK government has condemned the planned execution of a British–Iranian dual national by Iran and has appealed for it to not go ahead.

“Iran must halt the execution of British–Iranian national Alireza Akbari and immediately release him,“ British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly wrote in a tweet on Jan. 11. ”This is a politically motivated act by a barbaric regime that has total disregard for human life.”

Akbari, a former deputy defence minister of Iran, was arrested in 2019 and accused of espionage for British intelligence agency MI6, a charge he denies.

Iranian state media reported earlier on Jan. 11 that Akbari had been sentenced to death on charges of spying for the UK.

“He was one of the most important agents of the British intelligence service in Iran who had access to some very sensitive centres in the country,” Iran’s Intelligence Ministry stated. “Akbari had fully knowingly provided information to the enemy’s spy service.”

His death sentence has been upheld by Iran’s Supreme Court, report Nournews, an Iranian news agency affiliated with the country’s top security agency.

Fears of Imminent Execution

Akbari’s wife, Maryam, told the BBC’s Persian-language service that she was invited to a “final meeting” at the prison, where he has been put in solitary confinement, an apparent sign that an execution is imminent.

A UK Foreign Office spokesperson said, “Our priority is securing his immediate release, and we have reiterated our request for urgent consular access.”

Iran’s announcement of the death sentence came just hours after BBC Persian broadcast an audio message from Akbari, in which he said he was tortured and forced to confess on camera to crimes he didn’t commit.

“I was interrogated and tortured for over 3,500 hours in 10 months. All of that were recorded on camera. ... By using the force of gun and making death threats, they made me confess to false and baseless claims,” he said in the audio message.

On Jan. 12, Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency published a video that it said shows that Akbari played a role in the assassination of the country’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Fakhrizadeh, killed in an attack outside Tehran in 2020, was widely seen by Western intelligence as the mastermind of clandestine Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran ‘Industrialising Hostage-Taking’

Alicia Kearns, Conservative Party chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the House of Commons, accused the regime in Tehran of reacting because it felt “cornered” as a result of international sanctions and the continuing wave of anti-government protests.

“It is another horrifying example of the Iranian regime, because they feel they are cornered, because there is such significant pressure from sanctions, weaponising British nationals and industrialising hostage-taking,” she told BBC Radio 4’s “PM” on Jan. 11.

Following the recent executions of anti-government protesters, Kearns said Western countries should respond with fresh sanctions against the regime.

“Every time the Iranian government assassinates an individual involved in the protests, there should be sanctions applied by Western governments the next day to make the point that we stand by those protesting for the basic rights of Iranians. Otherwise, we are showing no meaningful support to them,” she said.

Akbari was a close ally of Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, who served as defence minister from 1997 to 2005 when Akbari was his deputy.

Kearns said the regime may have singled out Akbari because of his closeness to Shamkhani, whom she described as a “moderate voice” calling for discussions and dialogue in response to the current protests.

“I wonder if this is an effort to undermine that individual. It is also a chance for the Iranians to reiterate their narrative that the British government [and] the American government are trying to undermine the regime and overthrow the Iranian regime,” she said.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe (R) and Anoosheh Ashoori, who were freed from Iran, disembark after landing at RAF Brize Norton in England on March 17, 2022. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe (R) and Anoosheh Ashoori, who were freed from Iran, disembark after landing at RAF Brize Norton in England on March 17, 2022. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

‘Longstanding Pattern’

Tehran has detained a number of dual and foreign nationals in recent years, including British–Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was held in 2016 and released last year.

Amnesty International called Akbari’s death sentence “distressing and deeply concerning” and urged the UK government to do more to prevent the execution.

“There’s a longstanding pattern of British–Iranians being arrested, mistreated, and arbitrarily jailed by the Iranian authorities—in cases sometimes amounting to state hostage-taking—but an execution would represent a terrifying intensification of this process of using foreign nationals as diplomatic pawns,” said Freshta Sharif, Amnesty International UK’s individuals at risk campaign manager.

She noted that the UK has “a weak record when it comes to lobbying for the release of arbitrarily jailed Britons in Iran.”

“Ministers must be able to show they have a clear plan for ensuring the threat of execution is lifted from Alireza and that allegations he was tortured and forced to falsely confess are fully investigated,” she said.

PA Media and Reuters contributed to this report.