The family and friends of Johan Floderus, a Swedish diplomat potentially facing the death penalty in Iran, have told VICE News he has endured a “horrible situation” during his 20-month-long detention in a notorious Tehran prison.
Florerus, a 33-year-old working with Afghan refugees in Iran on behalf of the EU was detained in April 2022 at Tehran’s airport as he was visiting on a holiday trip and then accused of spying for Iran’s foes, in particular, Israel. He was charged and tried for “corruption on earth,” or stymieing the cause of the Iranian revolution, in the Islamic Republic’s religious courts, a charge that can be punished with death. He is the latest victim of a repeating pattern in which foreign nationals are entangled in a legal ordeal in Iran in order for the country’s ruling mullahs to extort money or other goals from the West.
Afraid that quiet diplomacy wasn’t working, Floderus’s loved ones broke their silence in December last year and, on Thursday, went to Brussels to hold an event to raise awareness of his case with European officials.
Floderus’s sister Ingrid told VICE News: “We are very close with Johan and always spoke on almost a daily basis. He is such a freedom-loving and stubborn person. Since his arrest, we have been only able to talk a few times. I can’t imagine how horrible the situation he is in, but he is still full of life and trying to stay strong.”
“Johan is someone full of life and always had a curious soul, and he always traveled around the world and spoke Farsi, and he visited Iran multiple times, and worked there.”
In Iran, all foreign nationals are closely monitored, and their movements must be approved by local authorities. Despite repeated calls from both the EU and Sweden to release Floderus, the Iranian judiciary has insisted that they have enough evidence to prosecute him on espionage charges.
The Swede’s case is being handled by Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran, headed by the clerical judge, Iman Afshari, already notorious for his passing unjust prison sentences on political activists, artists, and women.
Last Sunday, the court concluded Floderus’s hearing after five sessions in an almost-empty courtroom, which the Swedish man attended in a prison uniform with his state-appointed lawyer and translator. Mizan News, the Iranian judiciary’s official outlet, reported that the prosecutors accused Floderus of a “very extensive intelligence cooperation with the Zionist occupation regime,” and said that his travel history was clear evidence of his involvement in activities that “threaten Iran’s national security”.
Afshari gave a week for Floderus’ lawyer to submit their defense, and did not give a verdict date.
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Despite denials from the Iranian government, rights groups and Western governments have repeatedly accused the Islamic Republic of “hostage diplomacy” by using trumped-up charges such as “corruption on earth” to extract political concessions, release funds held abroad by international sanctions, or in prisoner exchanges.
Floderus’s arrest is likely to put pressure on Sweden in the case of the arrest of Iranian former prison official Hamid Nouri.
Nouri was detained upon arrival at Stockholm Airport in November 2019, and later charged with involvement in the killing of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in 1988.
The former prison official was sentenced to life "for grave breaches of international humanitarian law and murder,” by a Swedish court after the prosecution asked for the maximum penalty in July 2022. The outcome was hailed as a rare human rights success against Iranian regime officials, but outraged the government in Tehran, which called the case “politically motivated.”
Last Sunday, the Iranian prosecutor asked for the maximum penalty in Floderus’s case – either life in prison or the death sentence given the “important nature and adverse affects of the accused’s actions.”
The diplomat’s family had kept quiet about the arrest on the advice of the Swedish authorities as they tried to resolve the issue through “silent diplomacy,” and launched a public campaign after the news broke out at the end of last year, and losing hope that Floderus would be released through back-channel talks.
“Other governments go the distance to protect their citizens, and I hope that Sweden will do that too. Johan is my brother, and his freedom and well-being are the most important thing in the world. So of course I feel that you should use every tool in the toolbox,” said his sister, Ingrid.
Emily Atkinson, a close friend of Floderus, said: “Johan is someone who always brings people together. We have been left with a massive gap in our life without him, and we are also being taken hostage by the appalling situation,” she said as she struggled to keep back tears during a conversation with VICE News
“I want to say: Johan, hold on. We're here for you. We've rallied for you. We're speaking up for you, and we're here waiting for you. Hold on and stay strong.”