Iran executes Ali Reza Akbari over espionage claims

Iran executes Ali Reza Akbari over espionage claims

  • US News
  • January 15, 2023
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Iran said on Saturday it had executed a former senior defense ministry official and dual Iranian-British citizen, despite international warnings not to carry out the death sentence. The execution escalated tensions with the West amid the nationwide anti-government protests that rocked the Islamic Republic.

The hanging of Ali Reza Akbari, a close ally of senior security official Ali Shamkhani, points to an ongoing power struggle within Iran’s theocracy trying to contain demonstrations over the death of Mahsa Amini in September. It also stemmed from the mass purges by the military that immediately followed Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Akbari’s hanging immediately angered London, which has joined the US and others in sanctioning Iran over the protests and supplying Russia with the bomb-carrying drones now targeting Ukraine.

“This was a callous and cowardly act carried out by a barbaric regime with no respect for the human rights of its own people,” said British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly summoned the Iranian chargé d’affaires to the UK and temporarily withdrew the British ambassador from Tehran as Britain also imposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic’s attorney general.

“Our response to Iran is not limited to today,” he warned.

Iran also summoned the British ambassador after the execution.

The United States stands firmly with the United Kingdom in strongly condemning Iran’s execution of Iranian-British dual national Alireza Akbari. We mourn with his loved ones and will continue to hold Iran accountable for its sham trials and politicized executions.

— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) January 14, 2023

Iran’s Mizan news agency, which is linked to the country’s judiciary, announced Akbari’s hanging without saying when it happened. However, there were rumors that he had been executed days earlier.

Iran has claimed, without providing evidence, that Akbari served as a source for British intelligence, popularly known as MI6. A lengthy statement from the Iranian judiciary claimed Akbari received large sums of money, his British citizenship and other help in London to pass information to the intelligence agency.

However, Iran has long accused those who travel abroad or have ties to the West of espionage, often using them as bargaining chips.

Akbari, who ran a private think tank, was reportedly arrested in 2019, but details of his case have only emerged in recent weeks. People accused of espionage and other national security-related crimes are usually tried behind closed doors, where rights groups say they are not allowed to choose their own lawyers or see any evidence against them.

Iranian state television aired heavily edited video of Akbari discussing the allegations, footage similar to other alleged confessions that activists have described as coerced confessions.

The BBC’s Persian-language service on Wednesday broadcast an audio message from Akbari describing how he was tortured.

In this picture released Tuesday, October 14, 2008 by the Islamic Republic's news agency IRNA, Ali Reza Akbari speaks at a meeting to launch the book "National Atomic Movement" in Tehran, Iran.  Iran said on Saturday January 14, 2023 it had executed Akbari, an Iranian-British dual citizen who once held a senior position in the country's defense ministry, despite international warnings to stop his death sentence, raising tensions with the West escalated amid the nationwide protests now rocking the Islamic Republic.  (Davoud Hosseini, IRNA via AP)In this picture released on Tuesday October 14, 2008 by the Islamic Republic’s news agency IRNA, Ali Reza Akbari speaks at a meeting to unveil the book ‘National Nuclear Movement’ in Tehran, Iran. Iran said on Saturday January 14, 2023 it had executed Akbari, an Iranian-British dual citizen who once held a senior position in the country’s defense ministry, despite international warnings to stop his death sentence, raising tensions with the West escalated amid the nationwide protests now rocking the Islamic Republic. (Davoud Hosseini, IRNA via AP)

“Using physiological and psychological methods, they broke my will, drove me insane and forced me to do what they wanted,” Akbari said in the audio. “Through gun violence and death threats, they forced me to confess to false and corrupt allegations.”

Iran has not commented on the torture allegations. However, the UN human rights chief has warned Iran against “arming” the death penalty as a means of quelling the protests.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Akbari’s execution.

“We mourn with his loved ones and will continue to hold Iran accountable for its sham trials and politicized executions,” Blinken said.

Robert Malley, the US special envoy to Iran, said he was “appalled” by Akbari’s execution.

“The Islamic Republic’s unjust imprisonments, coerced confessions, sham trials and politically motivated executions must end,” he wrote online.

The execution of Alireza Akbari is a despicable and barbaric act. His name joins too long a list of victims of repression and the death penalty in Iran. Solidarity with Great Britain. Solidarity with the Iranian people.

— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) January 14, 2023

French President Emmanuel Macron also condemned what he called “a heinous and barbaric act”. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called the execution “another inhuman act by the Iranian regime”.

Iran is one of the world’s top executioners. However, it was not immediately clear when the last time a former or current senior defense official had been executed. In 1984, Iran executed its naval chief Adm. Baharam Afzali along with nine other military personnel on charges of spying for the Soviet Union.

The Iranian government has been trying for months to claim, without providing any evidence, that foreign countries have fueled unrest in the Islamic Republic since 22-year-old Amini died in September after being detained by vice squads. Protesters say they are furious at the collapse of the economy, stubborn policing and the entrenched power of the country’s Islamic clergy.

Iran has been engaged in a shadow war with the United States and Israel for several years, marked by covert attacks on its controversial nuclear program. The 2020 assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, which Iran blamed on Israel, indicated that foreign intelligence agencies had made great strides. Iran mentioned this scientist when discussing Akbari’s case, although it is unclear what, if any, current information it had on him.

In this picture released Tuesday, October 14, 2008 by the Islamic Republic's news agency IRNA, Ali Reza Akbari speaks at a meeting to launch the book "National Atomic Movement" in Tehran, Iran.  Iran said on Saturday January 14, 2023 it had executed Akbari, an Iranian-British dual citizen who once held a senior position in the country's defense ministry, despite international warnings to stop his death sentence, raising tensions with the West escalated amid the nationwide protests now rocking the Islamic Republic.  (Davoud Hosseini, IRNA via AP)In this picture released on Tuesday October 14, 2008 by the Islamic Republic’s news agency IRNA, Ali Reza Akbari speaks at a meeting to unveil the book ‘National Nuclear Movement’ in Tehran, Iran. Iran said on Saturday January 14, 2023 it had executed Akbari, an Iranian-British dual citizen who once held a senior position in the country’s defense ministry, despite international warnings to stop his death sentence, raising tensions with the West escalated amid the nationwide protests now rocking the Islamic Republic. (Davoud Hosseini, IRNA via AP)

Akbari had previously overseen the implementation of a 1988 ceasefire between Iran and Iraq following their devastating eight-year war, working closely with UN monitors. He served as deputy defense minister under Shamkhani during the administration of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, which likely makes his credentials even more suspicious for hardliners within Iran’s theocracy.

Today, Shamkhani is the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, the country’s top security agency, which is headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In Akbari’s audio message, broadcast by BBC Persian, he said he had been accused of receiving top secret information from Shamkhani “in exchange for a bottle of perfume and a shirt”. However, it appears that Shamkhani is staying in his role.

The anti-government protests now rocking Iran are one of the biggest challenges facing the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution.

At least 522 protesters were killed and 19,400 people arrested, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that has been monitoring the unrest. The Iranian authorities have not provided official figures on deaths or arrests.

Iran has executed four people after finding them guilty of protest-related charges in similarly criticized court cases, including attacks on security forces.

Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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