A Swedish E.U. official has been imprisoned “illegally” in Iran for more than a year, the European Union’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said on Tuesday, marking an escalation in Iran’s detention of foreign nationals.
Borrell said Johan Floderus, a member of the E.U.’s diplomatic corps, has been held in Iran for the last 500 days and that the European Union was working around the clock to secure his release.
“I want to say something — if you allow me — about a specific case, which is the case of Mr. Floderus, who is a Swedish citizen who works for the European Union, [who] has been detained illegally by Iran for the last 500 days,” Borrell told reporters during a visit to the Spanish city of Cadiz.
“Every time we had a diplomatic meeting at all levels, we have put the issue on the table. Relentlessly, we have been working for the freedom of Mr. Floderus,” Borrell said.
Sweden had kept the case under wraps until The New York Times reported the E.U. official’s detention over the weekend. Relations between Sweden and Iran have deteriorated after a Swedish court last year handed down a life sentence to a former Iranian judiciary official over his role in alleged war crimes in the 1980s.
The imprisonment of an E.U. official is a break with past arrests of foreigners by Iran, which have tended to focus on private citizens that hold Iranian passports as well as U.S. or European citizenship.
The White House National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment on the case.
For years, Iran has imprisoned foreign nationals, usually those who hold dual citizenship in a Western country as well as Iran, and charged them with espionage. But international human rights organizations and Western governments say the charges are without foundation and that the foreign prisoners are used as bargaining chips to exert leverage over other countries.
Iran denies the accusation and says foreigners who are imprisoned are treated in accordance with the country’s laws. Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Biden administration and Iran recently agreed to a prisoner exchange deal that is supposed to secure the release of five Americans and provide Iran with access to about $6 billion in oil revenues that have been blocked in South Korean banks. Last month, as part of the prisoner swap agreement, the five Americans were moved out of Evin prison to a hotel in Tehran, where they are being held under house arrest, pending the transfer of the funds to Qatar’s central bank.
The detention of the Swedish E.U. official follows a Swedish court ruling in July last year that saw a former Iranian judiciary official, Hamid Nouri, sentenced to life in prison for war crimes related to the mass execution and torture of political prisoners in 1988. He is currently serving his sentence. Iran expressed outrage over the case, calling it illegitimate.
“Iran is absolutely certain that Nouri’s sentence was politically motivated and it has no legal validity,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said after Nouri’s sentencing.
Two weeks later, Iran announced it had detained a Swedish citizen on espionage charges, without identifying Floderus or his position.
Earlier this year, a Belgian national and humanitarian aid worker, Olivier Vandecasteele, was released from Iran after spending 15 months behind bars on allegations of spying. He was freed in May as part of a prisoner exchange, with Belgium releasing an Iranian diplomat, Asadollah Assadi, who had been sentenced to 20 years for masterminding a plot to set off a bomb at a rally in Paris.