CHRI – Fate of Detainees Unclear Despite Intervention by Supreme Leader
Nearly two years after they were first detained in Tehran, eight conservationists have been charged with “cooperation with U.S. and Israeli enemy states against the Islamic Republic of Iran for the purpose of espionage for the CIA and Mossad,” the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has learned.
The charge, subject to Article 508 of the Islamic Penal Code, was announced after the end of their closed-door preliminary trial in Iran’s secretive revolutionary system, which began in February 2019.
According to Article 508, “Anyone who cooperates by any means with foreign states against the Islamic Republic of Iran, if not considered as mohareb (waging war against God, shall be sentenced to 1-10 years imprisonment.”
Two of the detainees, Niloufar Bayani and Morad Tahbaz, are facing additional charges of “gaining income through illegitimate means,” according to a civil rights activist with knowledge about the case who spoke to CHRI on condition of anonymity on November 6, 2019.
For the past 22 months, Bayani and Tahbaz, along with their colleagues Taher Ghadirian, Houman Jowkar, Sepideh Kashani, Amir Hossein Khaleghi, Sam Rajabi and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, have been detained in Tehran’s Evin Prison without due process.
They were arrested by the intelligence organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) along with the managing director of the non-profit organization they were all affiliated with, the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), Kavous Seyed-Emami, in January 2018.
Seyed-Emami died under mysterious circumstances while held for interrogations in Evin Prison. Iranian authorities claimed he committed suicide, but his family was pressured to quickly bury him without being able to conduct an independent autopsy.
Seyed-Emami, his wife, and two sons are all Canadian citizens. His sons, Ramin and Mehran, left Iran in March 2018 for Canada. But his widow, Maryam Mombeini, was banned from leaving Iran to join her sons in Vancouver, BC, until October 2019.
Three major state agencies including the Intelligence Ministry have declared that remaining living detainees did not commit espionage.
In addition to the Intelligence Ministry and the Department of Environment, the country’s highest national security-focused body, the Supreme National Security Council, has also refuted the IRGC’s allegation that the conservationists were spying.
“Niloufar Bayani’s salary during her six years at the UN Environmental Program in Geneva has been considered ‘illegitimate income,’” the source told CHRI. “The same accusation has been made against Morad Tahbaz for all the donations and public support he collected over the years for the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation and deposited in the organization’s account with full transparency.”
The PWFH was registered and operating legally in Iran for years before it was targeted by the IRGC.
“It’s a tragedy that the judicial system is prosecuting someone who worked for the UN because there are currently dozens of Iranians working as employees and experts in UN offices in Iran,” added the source. “The person who charged Niloufar is either ignorant… or wants to intimidate Iranians who work for the UN. In any case, this is going to hurt Iranians because UN programs aim to serve the people.”
In mid-October 2019, the charge of “corruption on earth,” which can lead to the death penalty under Iranian law, was dropped against four of the detained conservationists following pressure on the prosecutor and presiding judge by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
“After great efforts by the attorneys and families of the imprisoned conservationists, the supreme leader has ordered the authorities to pay attention to the expert opinion of the Intelligence Ministry regarding this case, and for this reason their trial was put on hold,” a source with detailed knowledge of the cases told CHRI on October 13.
A source with detailed knowledge of the cases told CHRI in January 2019 that some of the conservationists “were subjected to months of solitary confinement and psychological torture, threatened with death, threatened with being injected with hallucinogenic drugs, threatened with arrest and the death of family members.”
“Some of the detainees were also physically beaten up… all to force them to give false confessions against themselves,” added the source who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals by Iranian security forces.
The UN has called the charges against the conservationists “hard to fathom” and called for Iran to guarantee fair trials. “Nowhere in the world, including Iran, should conservation be equated to spying or regarded as a crime,” said UN human rights experts in February 2018. “Detention of human rights defenders for their work is arbitrary in nature.”
Their ongoing imprisonment without due process has been widely condemned by prominent international conservationists including renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, who released a video message in October 2019 calling on Iranian leaders to have “mercy” on the detainees.
Read this article in Persian.