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.
In February 2018, the President of the I.R 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 denied access to legal counsel for nine months until October, 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.”
All eight conservationists are still imprisoned.
News Articles on the detention of Iranian environmentalists between January and October 2018
IUCN statement: https://www.iucn.org/news/secretariat/201810/iucn-deeply-alarmed-capital-offence-charge-against-iran-conservationists
24 October: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/24/iran-charges-five-wildlife-activists-capital-offences-spying
14 October: https://www.iranfocus.com/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=33095:continued-imprisonment-for-iranian-environmentalists-who-have-yet-to-be-charged&catid=5:human-rights&Itemid=110
23 May: “They’re not spies”
22 April: Open letter from ~ 800 Iranian activists to President Rouhani: http://etemaadonline.ir/content/166339/نامه-فعالان-محیط-زیست
English summary: https://bit.ly/2OS1oDE
9 May, English report: https://bit.ly/2Oh2gR3
27 March: http://www.payvand.com/news/18/mar/1109.html
23 February: UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner:
22 February report in New York Times:
15 February: accusations by Dowlatabadi, IRNA: https://bit.ly/2TmQ3O1
and report by Centre for Human Rights in Iran: https://bit.ly/2RVNaSK
14 February: News Article in the Guardian: https://bit.ly/2ALUAnR
& Announcement that President Rouhani appointed a committee to investigate the case: http://dolat.ir/detail/305017
11 February article in BBC:
Some media coverage of this letter: