Background, detentions, investigations:
Key events from January to November 2018
In January 2018, several Iranian conservationists were imprisoned for temporary questioning by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They were current and former members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), an NGO working for the conservation of wildlife in Iran. Together with international partners, including the UN Development Programme, PWHF has leveraged an extraordinary level of support and attention for the conservation of the Asiatic cheetah and several other endangered species in Iran. The Asiatic cheetah is a subspecies of Acinonyx jubatus, one of the most imperiled cats on earth, with less than 50 individuals remaining only in the country.
In the words of its founders, PWHF “believes that the earth is home to all living creatures. We believe that through an understanding of the interconnectedness of life on this planet we can live responsibly, with the least harm to other species. Even if we have the survival of our own in mind, we clearly know that it is predicated on the livelihood of all species, flora and fauna. Over the years, we have witnessed the adverse effects of unbridled development and population growth in Iran. As a group of people who have developed a profound appreciation for the ecology and wildlife, we have come together to devote our efforts to the safeguarding of Iran’s delicate and scarred natural environment. By focusing on conservation, we try to put a balm on those scars and heal our wounds.”
The conservationists detained were Niloufar Bayani, Taher Ghadirian, Houman Jowkar, Sepideh Kashani, Amirhossein Khaleghi Hamidi, Sam Radjabi, Morad Tahbaz, and Kavous Seyed Emami, with Mr. Seyed Emami sadly passing away two weeks later. In February, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, who had volunteered in some of PWHF’s activities, was imprisoned as well. All these conservationists have remained imprisoned to this day, suspected of using camera traps in ways to undermine the national security interests of Iran. (Update: A. Kouhpayeh was released in March 2020.)
In February 2018, the President of the I.R. of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, announced that he had assembled a fact-finding committee to determine whether there were grounds for detention. In May 2018, this committee reported that the detained conservationists should be released due to the lack of evidence to support the allegations against them. The Intelligence Ministry, therefore, concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that these conservationists were involved in spy activities.
In April 2018, almost 800 Iranian celebrities and environmentalists signed a letter calling on President Hassan Rouhani to shed light on the case of the jailed conservationists. They emphasized that “Iranian environmentalists have always done their best to inform the people about the detrimental effects of climate change, water shortage and biodiversity loss among other environmental predicaments, which entails contacting foreign experts, professors and NGOs, utilizing equipment such as camera traps, and raising funds from international entities, [and] it is surprising to count such activities as a crime.”
In an open letter addressed to senior officials in July 2018, the families of the eight conservationists reported their loved ones were being held in Tehran’s Evin prison without access to legal advice. They wrote, “Our loved ones, who’s ceiling was the sky, and their bed the dear Iranian soil, have been arrested without any evidence, and they have been under intense pressure since“. The families have repeatedly asked the authorities to visit the detainees in prison to hear the circumstances of their detention, a request that was never answered.
The eight detainees have only occasionally been allowed to call their families or receive family visits. They were kept in solitary confinement for many months and denied access to legal counsel for nine months until October 2018, when some of them were told to choose their lawyers from a list approved by the judiciary. According to the Note to Article 48 of Iran’s Criminal Procedures Regulations, detainees accused of national security charges can be stripped of their due process and prisoners’ rights, including the right to choose their own lawyer.
In October 2018, the charges against four of the conservationists were elevated to “sowing corruption on Earth”, which carries the death penalty as the highest sentence. Attorney Mohammad Hossein Aghasi, who has been officially allowed to represent one of the detainees, Sam Radjabi, highlighted that Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi had changed the charge from “espionage” to “corruption on earth” after he allegedly received a letter from “the army.”
Finally, an open letter signed by more than 1100 conservationists in Iran addressed to Ayatollah Larijani, head of the judiciary system, underscored that while national security of Iran is a priority, the uncertainties in the charges against the jailed conservationists have caused many concerns in the Iranian environmentalist community, they emphasized that “We testified that in about 20 years of professional activity of these detainees, we only know them for serving our country and trying their best to protect its nature, and there were never suspected to have any suspicious activity.”
In November 2018, an international consortium of leading conservation practitioners and scholars addressed the open letter which is published on this website, to the Supreme Leader of the I.R. of Iran. At this point, all eight conservationists were still imprisoned. (A. Kouhpayeh was released in March 2020, the others remain imprisoned to date.) Over the course of the process, many public letters and testimonies in support of the detained conservationists have been issued from within and outside of Iran.
Trials and sentences:
December 2018 to February 2020
On January 30, 2019 (over a year after their detention), the closed-door trial for the eight conservationists started in Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Guards’ Court in Tehran. Over the course of five sessions, more than 300 pages of indictments were read out. They were at least largely based on the “confessions” of Niloufar Bayani (no other evidence is known). She repeatedly interrupted the reading saying that she had been forced to confess under immense physical and psychological pressure and threatened to be injected with hallucinating drugs, that the body of this confession was false and that she had retracted it during following investigations. Consequently, she was banned from attending the remaining 3 sessions. Not all accused were represented by a lawyer during these readings and those who were, were not allowed any communication with their attorneys. The attorneys were not previously given access to the files.
Following the readings, individual trials started but were stopped in early March for a new round of investigations which lasted almost four months. The trials resumed in July 2019 but were stopped again, at which point several of the detained conservationists went on hunger strike for up to ten days.
On October 13, 2019, the capital charge of “corruption on Earth” which had been held against four of the detained was dropped. (See English report by the Center for Human Rights in Iran, CHRI)
On November 20, 2019, the sentences were announced. The detained Iranian conservationists were convicted of “contacts with the U.S. enemy state” and sentenced to prison terms between 4 and 10 years: Niloufar Bayani and Morad Tahbaz were given 10 years, Taher Ghadirian and Houman Jowkar 8 years, Sepideh Kashani, Amirhossein Khaleghi and Sam Radjabi 6 years and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh 4 years in prison. Bayani and Tahbaz were also charged with “gaining illegitimate income”: Bayani’s salary during her 5-6 years at the UN Environmental Program in Geneva has been considered “illegitimate income“. The same accusation was made against Tahbaz for the donations and public support he had collected for PWHF over the years and which he had deposited in the organization’s account. (See first report by Mehr News Agency in farsi, and English reports by Mongabay, CHRI, and Human Rights Watch)
Following an appeal against the sentences, the Iranian appeals court issued “final verdicts” in their cases on February 18, 2020. The prison sentences were a reiteration of the verdicts from November. Niloufar Bayani and Morad Tahbaz were also ordered to “return” the money, specified above, that Iranian authorities claim they would have received from the U.S. government for their services. (See English reports on Mongabay and REFRL)
On February 20, BBC’s Persian Service published a letter from Niloufar Bayani to Iranian authorities. In the letter, she explained the torture she was faced to during 1200 hours of interrogation. She was threatened with death, rape, drugs, and forced to imitate the sounds of wild animals. (See English reports by the CHRI, on REFRL, and by Zamaneh Median)
March 2020 to date
On March 4, families of the detained activists formally asked the Chief of Justice to give leave to the detainees as a safety measure due to the Codiv-19 pandemic. On March 7, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh received a permit for a one-month-leave and on March 17, he was pardoned (see reports in Farsi by , Deutsche Welle, DW, Radio Farda, and HRA News). On the same day, Iran temporarily released 85,000 prisoners, including some political prisoners (see Reuters), but the remaining seven conservationists were not among them.
On April 17, the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights of the the United Nations (OHCHR) urged Iran to release prisoners of conscience and dual and foreign nationals that were at a particularly high risk of COVID-19, including Morad Tahbaz because of his age and serious health problems.
Still in mid March, Sam Radjabi had beeb suspected of having contracted Covid-19 and was taken to Taleqani hospital. After a CT scan of his lungs, it was concluded that he would not have the novel coronavirus and he was returned to the public prison ward. However, on April 22, Sam Radjabi tested positive for the novel coronavirus in hospital, where he had been taken for a neccessary operation. Before this date, he had shared a cell with 15 other inmates, including Houman Jowkar and Morad Tahbaz. After a few days, Radjabi was returned from hospital to Evin prison. See English reports by Radio Farda 1 and 2, and by CHRI.
Selected News Articles on the detention of Iranian environmentalists
January to mid-November 2018
24/10/2018: The Guardian reports on capital charges against five of the conservationists and UN concerns. (The capital charges were in fact raised against four of the conservationists, information was not clear in the first days.)
23/05/2018: The Head of the Iranian Department of Environment reiterates the conclusion of the Ministry of Intelligence that there is no evidence to suggest that the conservationists were spies and that they should be released. (Shargh Daily Newspaper) (fa)
22/04/2018: Open letter from ca. 800 Iranian activists to President Rouhani.
Original letter in Farsi with signatures (Etemad online)
English summary of the letter (Tehran Times)
27/03/2018: Current pieces of information on the case by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (Payvand)
23/02/2018: UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR): Spying charges against wildlife activists “hard to fathom”, say UN experts
22/02/2018: Report in New York Times
15/02/2018: The Iran Project reports on the spionage accusations stated by Tehran’s prosecutor
15/02/2018, Centre for Human Rights in Iran: Environmentalists Detained in Iran Denied Legal Counsel Weeks After Arrests
14/02/2018, Guardian: Iran urged by UN to respect environment activists after wildlife campaigner death
14/02/2018: President Rouhani has appointed a committee to investigate the case (fa)
11/02/2018: BBC reports on Kavous Seyed-Emami’s death
First media coverage of the letter from the international conservation community:
21/11/2018: Deutsche Welle (DW) Farsi
22/11/2018: Deutsche Welle (DW)
22/11/2018: Direto da ciencia
23/11/2018: IUCN SSC Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe
26/11/2018: Animals Today (NL)