French national Cécile Kohler, an education union official seized as a political prisoner in Iran in May 2022

Originally published in The Guardian:

In a few weeks, the family of Cécile Kohler will mark the second anniversary of the day she disappeared from their lives. On 6 May 2022, the then 37-year-old French teacher was at the end of a sightseeing holiday with her partner Jacques Paris in Iran. She had been in regular contact, posting photos and updates to her family on WhatsApp. But then, two days before she was scheduled to fly home, Cécile’s social media fell silent.

At first the family thought that she must have had a long trip back to France and was too tired to check her messages. When she didn’t turn up to her job the following week, they called the French authorities.

Two days later, her younger sister, Noémie Kohler, was in a work meeting when her phone pinged with a message from her mother.

“My mother had written, ‘They haven’t come back. They are in prison’,” says Noémie. “The world crumbled at that moment.”

Her mother said that the French authorities had confirmed that Cécile and Jacques had both been arrested. Video reports started to emerge on Iranian state-run news agencies that showed that the couple had been followed and placed under surveillance by the security services throughout their trip.

For two months the family and the French authorities desperately sought information from the Iranian state about what had happened to their daughter and her boyfriend, but received nothing. Then, in late July, Iranian human rights groups reported that two French nationals had been arrested on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security” and sent to the notorious Evin Prison.

On 6 October, the state-run IRNA news agency released a video of Cécile and Jacques “confessing” to being agents of the French intelligence services. Cécile was wearing a hijab and, her sister says, looked thin and exhausted.

Both the family and the French authorities say the confessions were forced, calling the couple “state hostages”. The French Foreign
Ministry put out a statement saying, “The staging of their supposed confessions is shameful, revolting, unacceptable and contrary to international law.”

Noémie says:

The first thing I saw on the video was my sister saying, “I am a French spy.” It was the worst day of my life. A lot of people then told me at least we knew she was alive. But for me it was devastating.

I was very scared of her being in solitary confinement and being under psychological pressure, and when I saw the video it confirmed to me all of my fears of what she must have gone through before it was filmed.

Nearly 700 days have now passed since detention. Neither the family nor the French authorities have been able to access any information about her case or more detail about what she has been charged with. Since her arrest, Cécile has only been allowed two short consular visits under surveillance.

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