DUBAI/LONDON (Reuters) - Iran has executed a British-Iranian national who once served as its deputy defence minister, its judiciary said, defying calls from London and Washington for his release after he was handed the death sentence on charges of spying for Britain.
Britain, which had declared the case against Alireza Akbari politically motivated, condemned the execution, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak calling it “a callous and cowardly act carried out by a barbaric regime”.
Akbari, 61, was arrested in 2019.
The Iranian judiciary’s Mizan news agency reported the execution without saying when it had taken place. Late on Friday, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly had urged Iran not to follow through with the sentence.
Also condemned by the United States and France, the execution looks set to further worsen Iran’s long-strained relations with the West, which have deteriorated since talks to revive its 2015 nuclear deal hit deadlock and after Tehran unleashed a deadly crackdown on protesters last year.
In an audio recording purportedly from Akbari and broadcast by BBC Persian on Wednesday, he said he had confessed to crimes he had not committed after extensive torture.
“Alireza Akbari, who was sentenced to death on charges of corruption on earth and extensive action against the country’s internal and external security through espionage for the British government’s intelligence service ... was executed,” Mizan said.
The Mizan report accused Akbari of receiving payments of 1,805,000 euros ($1.95 million), 265,000 pounds ($323,989.00), and $50,000 for spying.
Cleverly said in a statement the execution would “not stand unchallenged”. He later announced Britain had summoned the Iranian Charge d’Affaires, imposed sanctions on Iran’s prosecutor general, and temporarily withdrawn its ambassador from Tehran for further consultations.
It marks a rare case of the Islamic Republic executing a serving or former senior official. One of the last occasions was in 1984, when Iranian navy commander Bahram Afzali was executed after being accused of spying for the Soviet Union.
British statements on the case have not addressed the Iranian charge that Akbari spied for Britain.
Iran’s foreign ministry summoned the British ambassador over what it called London’s “meddling in Iran’s national security realm”, the state news agency IRNA reported.
Iranian state media, which have portrayed Akbari as a super spy, broadcast a video on Thursday which they said showed he played a role in the 2020 assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, killed in an attack outside Tehran which authorities blamed at the time on Israel.
In the video, Akbari did not confess to involvement in the assassination but said a British agent had asked for information about Fakhrizadeh.
Iran’s state media often airs purported confessions by suspects in politically-charged cases.
Reuters could not establish the authenticity of the state media video and audio, or when or where they were recorded.
Akbari was a close ally of Ali Shamkhani, now the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, who was defence minister from 1997 to 2005. Akbari fought during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s as a member of the Revolutionary Guards.
Ramin Forghani, a nephew of Akbari, told Reuters the execution had come as a shock.
“I don’t think a person who spent all his life, from an early age, to serve the country - since the Iran-Iraq war - would spy for any country,” he said, noting Akbari had the rank of colonel in the Revolutionary Guards.
Speaking by phone from Luxembourg, he said Akbari’s wife, who lives in London, had tried but failed to persuade Iranian officials to spare his life. Reuters was unable to reach her.
‘DESPICABLE AND BARBARIC’
The U.S. State Department described the execution as politically motivated and unjust. The U.S. ambassador to London called it “appalling and sickening”. French President Emmanuel Macron called it a “despicable and barbaric act”.
Iran’s ties with the West have also been strained by its support for Russia in Ukraine, where Western states say Moscow has used Iranian drones.
Along with other Western states, Britain, which has a long history of fraught ties with Iran, has been fiercely critical of Tehran’s crackdown on anti-government protests, sparked by the death in custody of a young Iranian-Kurdish woman in September.
Iran has issued dozens of death sentences as part of the crackdown, executing at least four people.
A British minister said on Thursday Britain was actively considering proscribing the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation but had not reached a final decision.
In the recording broadcast by BBC Persian, Akbari said he had made false confessions due to torture.
“With more than 3,500 hours of torture, psychedelic drugs, and physiological and psychological pressure methods, they took away my will. They drove me to the brink of madness... and forced me to make false confessions by force of arms and death threats,” he said.
Amnesty International said the execution displayed again Tehran’s “abhorrent assault on the right to life”. In Akbari’s case, “it is particularly horrific given the violations he revealed he was subjected to in prison”.
The Iranian authorities have not responded to accusations Akbari was tortured.
An Iranian state TV report - details of which Reuters could not independently verify - said he was arrested on espionage charges in 2008 before he was freed on bail and left Iran.
In an interview with BBC Persian broadcast on Friday, Akbari’s brother Mehdi said he had returned to Iran in 2019 based on an invitation from Shamkhani.
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Reporting by Dubai newsroom, Michael Holden in London, Tassilo Hummel in Paris and Kanishka Singh in Washington; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by William Mallard, Angus MacSwan, Tomasz Janowski and Christina Fincher