French teacher Cécile Kohler was on holiday in Iran when she became one of dozens of European nationals used as pawns by the regime. Her sister Noémie explains the ongoing fight for her release

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 family say that 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.

Noémie says that Cécile has been able to make sporadic phone calls from prison to her family, but that her sister is not able to speak freely.

“It’s devastating to watch my parents suffer,” she says. “With Cécile behind bars, our family is amputated. Our Christmases aren’t the same and we always cry thinking about her each time we meet. We are trying to make our family get-togethers look normal for the sake of our nephew and niece, whom Cécile loves very much.”

The family still have no idea why Cécile and Jacques were singled out to be detained. Iranian-state media have said that the couple were associating with Iran’s main teachers’ union, which the family denies.

“She went on holiday and was arrested, that’s all,” says Noémie. “She didn’t know anyone inside Iran.”

The couple are among dozens of European nationals who have been imprisoned by the regime. In an attempt to try to keep Cécile’s plight in the public eye, the family have launched a social media campaign called “Liberté pour Cécile” and have been organising public protests.

“I see that the French authorities are working hard on bringing back our family members, but it’s been more than 690 days that my sister has been in the Evin prison. They have to do more because nothing has changed in her case,” says Noémie.

“To bring back my sister and others home the EU needs to work harder. I still have hope that I will see my sister back home in France again. I call on the Iranian authorities to please release my sister. We don’t know how she is or what conditions she is living in. It’s incredibly hard to live without her.”

Source » theguardian