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In Iran, environmentalists face arbitrary detention

A female Asiatic Cheetah, an endangered species found in Iran, walks in an enclosure at the Pardisan Park in Tehran, 10 October 2017
A female Asiatic Cheetah, an endangered species found in Iran, walks in an enclosure at the Pardisan Park in Tehran, 10 October 2017

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 3 August 2018.

Iranian authorities should immediately release eight environmental activists detained for six months unless they can immediately charge them with recognizable crimes and produce evidence to justify their continued detention, Human Rights Watch said today. Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) intelligence organization has arrested at least 50 environmental activists across the country since January 2018.

On July 31, in an open letter addressed to senior officials, the families of the eight environmentalists said their loved ones are being held in Tehran's Evin prison without access to a lawyer. They asked the authorities to visit these detainees in prison to hear the circumstances of their detention. The environmentalists are Houman Jokar, Sepideh Kashani, Niloufar Bayani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Sam Rajabi, Taher Ghadirian, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, and Morad Tahbaz.

"Six months on, the Iranian authorities still haven't provided a shred of evidence to justify locking up these environmentalists," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The authorities should be praising these activists for addressing Iran's dire environmental problems, but the country's hard-line security institutions rarely miss an opportunity to punish independent civic initiative."

On January 24 and 25, the IRGC intelligence organization arrested several members of a local environmental group, the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, accusing them of using environmental projects as a cover to collect classified strategic information. It is unclear what classified strategic information these individuals could potentially collect, as the foundation works to conserve and protect Iran's flora and fauna, including the Asiatic Cheetah, an endangered species found in the country. On February 10, the family of Kavous Seyed Emami, a well-known environmentalist and professor arrested as part of this crackdown, reported he had died in detention under unknown circumstances. Iranian authorities have claimed Seyed Emami committed suicide, but they have not conducted an impartial investigation into his death.

On July 31, Mohammad Hossein Aghasi, a lawyer for the detained sons of the Rajabi and Ghadirian families, told Human Rights Watch the prosecutor has not allowed him to represent his clients and has not given him a chance to read their cases.

Under article 48 of Iran's 2014 criminal procedure, detainees charged with various offenses, including national or international security crimes, political and media crimes, must select their counsel from a pre-approved pool of lawyers selected by Iran's judiciary during the investigation. In June, the judiciary published a list that included only 20 lawyers allowed to represent people charged with national security crimes in Tehran province. The list did not include any women or human rights lawyers.

On July 30, a source with close knowledge of the cases who preferred to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch the families have not been able to get any information about the charges or evidence the authorities have brought against the detained environmentalists. The source confirmed that during a June visit with their detained relatives, families noticed one detainee's tooth was broken and another had bruises and scars on his nose.

On May 9, Mahmoud Sadeghi, a member of parliament from Tehran, tweeted that the intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, said explicitly there is no evidence that suggests the detained activists are spies. On May 22, Issa Kalantari, the head of Iran's Environmental Institution, said during a speech at a bio-diversity conference that the government had formed a committee consisting of the ministers of intelligence, interior, and justice and the president's legal deputy, and that they had concluded there was no evidence to suggest those detained are spies. Kalantari added that the committee said the environmentalists should be released.

Since Seyed Emami's death, Revolutionary Guard authorities have raided his house several times, repeatedly harassed his family, and banned Maryam Mombeini, his wife, from leaving the country.

On February 15, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) 20:30 program aired a video that accused Seyed Emami of using surveys of the endangered Asiatic cheetahs as a pretext for spying in strategically sensitive areas. The program did not present any evidence and violated due process guarantees, Human Rights Watch said. On July 16, Payam Derafshan, the lawyer of Seyed Emami family, told the Iranian Labor News Agency the family had filed a complaint against the news program.

On May 9, Mojgan Jamshidi, a journalist who covers environmental issues, tweeted that authorities had arrested more than 40 local environmental activists in the city of Bander-e-Lengeh, in Hormozgan province in southern Iran. They have been released from detention, two sources confirmed to Human Rights Watch.

"The country is facing serious economic and environmental challenges, but authorities are throwing the very people who could be part of the solution in jail," Whitson said.

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