(Beirut) – A third suspicious death in Iranian prisons since early January 2018 underscores the need for an immediate independent inquiry, Human Rights Watch said today. On February 10, the family of a well-known Iranian environmentalist, Dr. Kavous Seyed Emami, who had been in detention for two weeks on bogus charges, reported that he had died under unknown circumstances.
On January 24 and 25, security forces reportedly arrested seven environmental activists on January 24 and 25, including Seyed Emami, a well-known Iranian-Canadian academic and a faculty member of Imam Sadegh University. On February 10, Ramin Seyed Emami, his son, wrote on social media that authorities had summoned his mother the day before to inform her that her husband had “committed suicide” in detention.
“Iranian judicial authorities think they can get away with claiming that Seyed Emami, a well-known professor, simply committed suicide while being detained in one of the highest-security wards of Evin prison,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Iranian judiciary long ago lost its credibility after failing to investigate repeated incidents of torture and mistreatment in detention.”
Seyed Emami’s death is the third case of alleged suicide in detention reported by the authorities since early January. On January 7 and 8, in the aftermath of mass arrests that followed protests across the country, activists reported at least two deaths, in the cities of Tehran and Arak.
On the morning of February 10, Abbas Jafari Dolat Abadi, the Tehran prosecutor, said at a news conference that intelligence authorities had arrested a number of activists whom they allege were using environmental projects as a cover to collect classified strategic information. The Iran International News website reported that Houman Jokar, Sepideh Kashani, Niloufar Bayani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Sam Rajabi, and Taher Ghadriain were the activists arrested on January 24 and 24. They were all members of a local environmental group, the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation. The conservation organization works on protecting Iran’s flora and fauna, including the Asiatic Cheetahs, an endangered species found in Iran.
Leili Hooshmand Afshar, Sam Rajabi’s mother, strongly rejected allegations of her son being a “spy” in an interview with Center for Human Rights in Iran on February 12. “My son was an environmental activist who chose to serve his country,” said Hooshmand Afshar. “I have no information about his condition at this moment, and he has not contacted his family since the time of his arrest.”
On February 11, Mahmoud Sadeghi, a parliamentarian from Tehran, tweeted that when he inquired with authorities about Seyed Emami’s death, he discovered authorities had also arrested Kaveh Madani, the deputy head of Iran's Department of Environment and a faculty member at Imperial College London. Madani recently moved to Tehran to join the administration. On February 12, Madani published a video on his Instagram account saying that he had “returned” to his office without providing any details about whether he was arrested or not.
“This seems to be yet another wave of crackdown against people who want to help with solving the country’s chronic problems. The Iranian judiciary should immediately and unconditionally release these activists unless they have credible evidence to charge them promptly with a recognizable crime and guarantee their rights,” said Whitson.
Following Seyed Emami’s death, four independent Iranian scientific associations, the Political Science Society, the Social Science Society, the Peace Studies Society, and the Cultural Studies Society, asked president Rouhani in an open letter to investigate Seyed Emami’s death and ensure that the authorities involved will provide a satisfactory response. Several members of parliament also have asked judicial authorities to clarify the nature of his death.
On February 12, Ali Motahari, a parliamentarian from Tehran, told ISNA news agency that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s Intelligence Unit held a meeting with several members of parliament in which they provided some explanations about Seyed Emamdi’s death. Motahari added that authorities presented them a video that purports to show Seyed Emmadi preparing to commit suicide, but offers no clarity on what happens afterwards.
On February 11, a confidential source confirmed in correspondence to Human Rights Watch that Seyed Emami did not have any contact with his family after he was detained. “Authorities summoned his wife and interrogated her for four hours before telling her that Seyed Emami committed suicide in prison,” the source said.
The source also provided Human Rights Watch with a statement Seyed Emami’s family issued calling for an independent, transparent autopsy so that the family and the public could learn how he died. The statement says that:
The judiciary has told the family to receive the body on Tuesday morning from Kahrizak prison on the condition that they immediately and quietly bury him. They have said they will conduct their own autopsy but have not informed the family of the result yet. A funeral is planned for Tuesday morning in the village of Amameh in the mountains north of Tehran. The family has been banned from holding a funeral service or memorial service for Mr. Seyed-Emami but a steady procession of friends, family members, students, and colleagues visited his home on Monday under the surveillance of police officers stationed near the house.
The authorities claimed, in reporting the other two deaths, that Sina Ghanbari committed suicide in Evin prison and Vahid Heidari in Arak prison. However, the government has failed to conduct an independent inquiry into their deaths and has harassed lawyers working on Heidari’s case. On January 15, authorities arrested Mohammad Najafi, a human rights lawyer from Arak who was following Heidari’s case and detained him for several weeks. On January 9, Najafi told Human Rights Watch that “the people who saw Heidari’s body told us that there were cuts and bruises on the left side of his forehead that could be a sign of being beaten by a baton.” Najafi also said that he had “received numerous reports from people who were detained by authorities that they were harshly beaten during their arrest and detention in Arak.”
On January 30, a parliamentary delegation visited Evin prison following allegations of abuse by prisoners’ families, but it has not released a report. Members of parliament who spoke to the media after the visit provided conflicting information about Ghanbari’s alleged suicide.
Allahyar Malekshahi, the head of the parliamentary judiciary commission, told IRNA news agency on January 30 that prison authorities showed the delegation a video of Ghanbari’s suicide. But Alireza Rahimi, a parliament member from Tehran, wrote on his Telegram channel that the video was taken from security cameras in prison and only shows Ghanbari walking into one of the bathrooms, where another inmate discovered his body behind the door two hours later.
Rahimi said the authorities arrested 4,972 people during the recent protests, a significantly higher number than the 3,700 previously announced by Mahmoud Sadeghi, another parliament member from Tehran. Rahimi also confirmed that as of January 30, 438 were still in detention, and another 50 were being held by the Intelligence Ministry.
Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented abuses and torture in Iranian prisons, as well as persistent impunity for these serious violations. Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photo journalist, died in July 2003, a few days after Iranian security forces detained her at Evin prison for photographing in a restricted area in front of the prison. Authorities have still not released information on the circumstances of her death.
On January 10, 2010, a parliamentary panel investigating detentions after the disputed 2009 presidential election determined that Saeed Mortazavi, the former Tehran prosecutor general, was directly responsible for the ill-treatment of detainees in Kahrizak prison. On November 26, 2017, the Appeals Court of Tehran sentenced Mortazavi to two years in prison for complicity in the murder of Mohsen Ruholamini in Kahrizak detention center after the 2009 crackdown.
“The international community should push for an independent investigation into these deaths without further delay,” Whitson said. “Iranian authorities are failing the victims and their families.”