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Iran upholds heavy sentences for conservationists convicted of spying

Sunset over Tehran, Iran. Image by Marzie Tabeshfard via Pexels.

  • A court in Tehran this week upheld its guilty verdict for eight Iranian conservationists accused of spying, with sentences ranging from four to 10 years.
  • The eight are all affiliated with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, a Tehran-based conservation organization that works to save the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) and other species.
  • The eight conservationists have been imprisoned since their arrests in January 2018. A colleague arrested at the same time died in custody.
  • Rights groups and conservation organizations have condemned the verdict, alleging serious flaws in the judicial process including credible reports of torture and forced confessions.

This week Iran’s judiciary upheld sentences for eight conservationists from the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) who were convicted of collaborating with enemy states.

The sentences, handed down in November 2019 along with guilty verdicts, ranged from four to 10 years. At issue appeared to be allegations that the conservationists used wildlife camera traps to spy on behalf of the U.S. and Israel.

As Mongabay reported at the time, PWHF founder Morad Tahbaz and program manager Niloufar Bayani (formerly a consultant with the U.N. Environment Programme, UNEP) received 10-year jail terms. Cheetah researcher Houman Jowkar and biologist Taher Ghadirian were sentenced to eight years apiece. Coordinator Sepideh Kashani, big cat conservationist Amirhossein Khaleghi Hamidi and former PWHF staffer Sam Radjabi received six years, while conservationist and wildlife photographer Abdolreza Kouhpayeh was handed four years’ jail time on the lesser charge of collusion.

Eight conservationists affiliated with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation were recently convicted of spying in Iran. Top row, from left: Niloufar Bayani, Taher Ghadirian, Houman Jowkar and Sepideh Kashani. Bottom row, from left: Amirhossein Khaleghi Hamidi, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, Sam Radjabi and Morad Tahbaz. Images courtesy of AnyHopeForNature.

Following the November guilty verdicts, the group launched an appeal bid within the two-week window stipulated under Iranian law and had been awaiting its outcome ever since.

On Feb. 18, the court announced its decision to uphold the sentences without the presence of family members or legal representatives, a spokesperson for the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) told Mongabay over email. Sources close to the case say family members learned the outcome of the appeal from Persian-language news reports.

The spokesperson told Mongabay that the PWHF eight are being held in general wards at Evin Prison in Tehran, in conditions similar to other political prisoners. They are allowed family visits.

Iran’s handling of the case has drawn widespread international condemnation, with former colleagues, rights groups and the conservation community rallying in support of the accused.

“The Iranian court’s refusal to overturn or reduce the sentences imposed on the eight innocent conservationists is the latest chapter in a deeply disturbing saga of injustice and egregious human rights violations,” David R. Boyd, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and environment, told Mongabay. “There is no evidence that the imprisoned individuals committed any crimes. All of them should be released immediately and compensated for their unlawful imprisonment and the violations of their rights.”

The Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation’s late managing director, Kavous Seyed-Emami, who died in prison shortly after his arrest in January 2018. Image courtesy of the Seyed-Emami family.

Following the announcement of the upheld sentences this week, BBC Persian reported on the contents of letters Niloufar Bayani sent to Iranian authorities from prison in which she described in detail being physically and psychologically tortured and sexually harassed during “at least 1,200 hours of interrogation” while imprisoned, including eight months in solitary confinement. CHRI posted English translations of portions of the letter on its website.

In one letter, Bayani wrote that the torture she underwent was used to extract a false confession. “While I completely lost the strength to resist their pressures, agents dictated things that were later leveraged against me. They said ‘you wrote your death sentence with your own hand. You can’t get off this train anymore.’”

Bayani wrote that the interrogators told her “the only way to save yourself and your colleagues is to write down everything we want,” which she described as “an unbelievable fictional scenario about espionage under the guise of protecting the environment.”

Bayani and Morad Tahbaz were additionally ordered to repay “illicit income.” For Bayani, the amount was $360,000, which a source close to the case told Mongabay appeared to have been calculated from the total salary she drew in her years with UNEP.

“I am disheartened and disappointed by the decision of Iran’s judiciary to uphold lengthy prison sentences of eight environmentalists, including a dedicated former consultant with the U.N. Environment Programme,” UNEP executive director Inger Anderson told Mongabay. “We at UNEP call for clemency.”

A critically endangered Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus), of which only 50 remain, all of them in Iran. Image by Tasnim News Agency via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).

The arrests of PWHF staff came in January 2018, with early allegations centered on the group’s relationship with New York-based big-cat conservation group Panthera and its controversial founder, commodities billionaire Thomas Kaplan.

In a statement issued in December 2019, a few weeks after the convictions, Panthera said its relationship with PWHF was “narrow and centered on supplying camera traps.”

“Our last material interaction occurred in early 2017 when PWHF purchased 45 camera traps from Panthera, a vendor relationship Panthera has with many conservation organizations across the world. Panthera also provided periodic technical and scientific advisement to PWHF in its own conservation activities,” the statement read.

For the duration of the trial, Panthera had ignored repeated requests for comment from the media. The December statement said this was at the request of unnamed authorities, presumably from the U.S. government.

Comments made by Kaplan in 2017 had moved PWHF staff to sever ties with Panthera. At the United Against Nuclear Iran summit in late 2017, Kaplan had likened Iran’s role in Iraq to a reticulated python slowly devouring its prey. Kaplan also partly funds the New York-based United Against Nuclear Iran, a nonprofit that advocates for economic isolation and regime change in Iran, and against its obtaining nuclear capabilities. The group’s board includes former intelligence officials from the U.S., Israel and the U.K., and enjoys high-level support from current and former members of the Trump administration.

“Such politically motivated statements by the Islamic Republic’s adversaries have increased the state’s paranoia and strengthened conspiracy theories about using environmental issues as a cover for acts against the state,” Kaveh Madani, the former deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment, wrote in a Medium post last year.

Madani, who served in the environment department for seven months from 2017, left Iran amid allegations that he himself was a spy working to advance foreign interests inside the country. He told Mongabay he interpreted the court’s upholding the sentence as a face-saving measure. “A justice system that has made serious due process violations from day one in this case does not have the capacity to correct itself,” he said. “But at the end of the day, let’s not forget that these guys are simply the victims of Iran’s domestic and international power battles. This is not about them.” 

For the families of the eight detained conservationists, the appeal decision extinguished their tentative hopes for clemency, or at least reduced sentences.

The sons and wife of PWHF managing director Kavous Seyed-Emami, who was arrested with the others but died in Evin Prison before facing trial, say Iranian authorities still have not permitted an independent investigation of his death.

The critically endangered Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus), the subject of key conservation initiatives carried out by the PWHF staff, continues to stare down the imminent threat of extinction.

There has, however, been some progress on that front: conservation sources say the Iranian government has allowed a limited resumption of efforts by other organizations to save the big cats.

Sunset over Tehran, Iran. Image by Marzie Tabeshfard via Pexels.

Kayleigh Long is a freelance journalist based in London.

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