Will Iran finally grant the conservationists their legal rights?

The last week has seen the release of thousands of prisoners in Iran, following the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s approval of a general pardon and commutation of sentences earlier this month. The seven wildlife conservationists, Niloufar Bayani, Morad Tahbaz, Taher Ghadirian, Houman Jowkar, Sepideh Kashani, Amirhossein Khaleghi and Sam Radjabi, were told the pardon or amnesty would apply to them as well, but there is doubt whether that will be in fact the case.

While a large number of prisoners, including criminals, have been released under the latest pardon, it is not clear why the conservationists are still being held back. They have told friends that they have received ambiguous messages about their prospect of release. Based on their many previous experiences with the prison authorities and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who continue to keep a tight grip on their situation, they worry that they may only be told they are going to be pardoned to be kept quiet and that they will again be denied their rights at the end of the day.

Because of their international collaborations in the field of wildlife and nature conservation science, the seven Iranian conservationists were convicted for “contacts with the U.S. enemy state”. Niloufar Bayani and Morad Tahbaz were additionally convicted of “gaining illegitimate income”, referring to Niloufar’s salary when working for the United Nations Environment Programme, and the donations Morad had raised for the work of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation.

According to Article 110 of Iran’s Constitution, pardoning convicts or commuting their sentences can take place if the judiciary chief makes the proposal and the Supreme Leader approves it. (Source: aa.com.tr) Exactly this happened on February 5th 2023. The pardon typically does not apply to those who have “espionage/security” charges, but Fariba Adelkhah, an Iranian/French anthropologist, detained on such charges, was just released allegedly under Article 110.

According to Article 58 of the Islamic Penal Code, those sentenced to prison for more than 10 years can be released if they serve half of their term, and those that have served shorter sentences can be released from prison after serving a third of their term. This is called “Azadi-ye mashrut” – Parole.

While it is pending whether the amnesty law clearly applies to the imprisoned conservationists, Azadi-ye mashrut does and all imprisoned conservationists should be released on parole.  

Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director, has on Monday re-issued her plea to release Niloufar Bayani and the remaining conservationists, “taking note of pardons recently issued by Iranian authorities”. Joining her call is also Jon Paul Rodriguez, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC), urging clemency and the safe return home for all of the conservationists. Houman Jowkar, Taher Ghadirian and Amirhossein Khaleghi are members of several IUCN SSC specialist groups, including cat and bear.

We call upon the Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to pardon the Iranian conservationists and the Iran Judiciary to apply their laws: in the case amnesty is not granted to honor their legal system and apply Article 58.

We invite everyone to join the plea for the release of our dear friends and colleagues.