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French Iran-ophile takes unexpected trip -- to prison

Clotilde Reiss has been fascinated by Iran since she was a child. Now she finds herself in the notorious Evin Prison, accused of espionage, a charge her friends call absurd.

July 08, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

BEIRUT — The young, quiet Frenchwoman became fascinated with Iran not because she wanted to fight against Islamic radicalism or because she was lured by the mystique of the Orient, like most scholars, but for more mundane reasons.

As a child in Paris, her longtime nanny was Iranian, teaching her bits of Persian as she grew up. Shortly after her mother died eight years ago, she immersed herself in the language and culture of the country, eventually spending months in Iran studying Persian and teaching French at colleges.

Now Clotilde Reiss, 23, sits in Tehran's Evin Prison, Western diplomats say. She was arrested July 1 and accused of espionage.

Her detention has placed her at the center of an international drama that pits the European Union against Iran, which is trying to suppress protests following the June 12 presidential election, marred by accusations of fraud.

A Western official in Tehran said she allegedly was photographed taking part in anti-government demonstrations, had pictures of protests on her cellphone camera and wrote an e-mail to a journalist describing the unrest.

"That is not espionage and cannot be so. The accusation is absurd," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Monday.

"She's not political," said a longtime friend, among the small group of European scholars who travel to Iran to conduct social and political research. The friend spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns. "But she's Iranian in her heart."

Reiss finds herself among a group of foreign nationals caught up in the recent unrest. Greek British journalist Iason Athanasiadis was arrested at Imam Khomeini International Airport as he tried to leave the country and was held for two weeks. Iranian Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, a freelance correspondent for Newsweek and broadcast media, is in prison, as is Hossein Rassam, an Iranian who is the top political analyst at the British Embassy in Tehran.

In an effort to paint the unrest as the work of foreign agents, the government has accused all of taking part in or provoking postelection protests.

But the soft-spoken Reiss appears miscast for such a role. She studied Iran in the French city of Lille and at the Sorbonne in Paris and traveled to Iran last year as a fellow for the French Research Institute in Tehran, returning five months ago to teach language classes at a university in the city of Esfahan.

Reiss found an apartment in the historic city's ancient Jolfa section, the heart of Iran's Armenian Christian community, her friends say. She decorated her apartment with Persian rugs and made friends with her neighbors, who adopted the young woman with exceptional command of Persian as one of their own.

During weekends she would travel to Tehran or the cities of the lush Caspian Sea coast, or welcome visitors from Tehran to her home.

On July 1, as she tried to leave the country for Beirut, she disappeared. French and Iranian authorities confirmed Monday that she was being held in Evin, accused of espionage.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has dismissed the charge as "pure fantasy" and demanded her release.

"Let me say in the clearest and simplest way possible: We demand the release of our compatriot," Sarkozy said Tuesday. "I do not doubt for an instant that she will be released very, very soon."

A Western diplomat in Tehran said she is also accused of sending one straightforward e-mail describing events in Esfahan to a journalist in Tehran, which authorities say they have tracked. Friends say she never tried to hide anything.

"Of course we know that being a researcher in Iran, we're under surveillance," said one friend. "We know that our Internet is monitored and our phone is tapped. But we were always cautious and we never took any risks."

Though she may have marched in peaceful protests or taken pictures of them with her cellphone, friends say they cannot imagine her taking part in riots or damaging property.

"She's not the kind of girl who would jump in the fire," said one friend. "She's always respectful of morality and behavior. She knows very well Iran so she wouldn't take stupid risks."

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daragahi@latimes.com

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