(Beirut, February 19, 2020) – An Iranian revolutionary court has upheld the unjust sentences against eight environmental experts already detained for over two years, Human Rights Watch said today. Iranian authorities have failed to produce any evidence to support their charges against members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation and should free them immediately.
On February 18, 2020, Gholamhossein Esmaili, Iran’s judiciary spokesman, confirmed at a news conference that a court of appeal had upheld sentences ranging from 6 to 10 years in prison against seven of the group’s members for “cooperating with the hostile state of the US.” Esmaili said the court also upheld a 4-year prison sentence for Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, another member of the group, for “assembly and collusion to act against national security.”
“Iran’s revolutionary courts are ‘revolutionary’ only in their ability to fabricate charges without evidence,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Two years on, there’s still not a shred of evidence against these environmental experts, and the authorities should release them immediately.”
The court upheld the 10-year sentences for Niloufar Bayani and Morad Tahbaz and ordered them to return allegedly “illicit income.” The court ordered Bayani to return US$360,000 of these “illicit funds;” authorities calculated this amount by multiplying Bayani’s latest annual salary from the United Nations Environment Programme, where she worked prior to joining the wildlife group, by her six years of working there, a source told Human Rights Watch.
The court also upheld the 8-year sentences for Houman Jokar and Taher Ghadirian on the charge of “cooperating with the hostile states of the US and Israel through spying against the Islamic Republic and in favor of the foreign intelligence services of the CIA and Mossad.” Likewise, the court of appeal upheld the 6-year sentences against Amir Hossein Khaleghian, Sepideh Kashani, and Sam Rajabi for “participating in spying against the Islamic Republic,” “participating in cooperation with the hostile state of the US,” and “cooperating with the hostile state of the US,” respectively.
The Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization arrested seven of the defendants on January 24 and 25, 2018, as well as Kavous Seyed Emami, an Iranian-Canadian university professor. The authorities arrested Kouhpayeh, who was tried with the seven other activists, on February 25. On February 10, 2018, family members of Seyed Emami reported that he had died in detention under suspicious circumstances. Iranian authorities claimed that he committed suicide, but they have not conducted an impartial investigation into his death and had banned his wife from traveling until October 2019.
On October 24, 2018, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, the Tehran prosecutor, said at a news conference that four detainees faced the charge of “sowing corruption on earth,” which includes the risk of the death penalty. He claimed that the activists were “seeking proximity to military sites with the cover of the environmental projects and obtaining military information from them.”
The environmental experts’ trial began in January 2019 but was halted in March. The trial resumed briefly in June but was halted again until it was concluded on November 2. Bayani had interrupted a trial session in February, saying that the defendants had been under psychological torture and were coerced into making false confessions. In a letter reviewed by BBC Persian, Bayani wrote that she has been threatened with injection of some substance in her arm by “rolling up her sleeves” and with torture by showing her “photos of torture devices.”
On October 14, Esmaili, the judiciary spokesman, told the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) that the authorities were changing the charge of “sowing corruption on earth” to a charge of collaborating with US and Israel to spy. During the trial, judiciary officials did not allow the detainees to choose their own lawyer, forcing them to be represented by lawyers who were pre-approved by the judiciary. The list that was announced in June 2018 did not include any human rights lawyers.
Over the past two years, several senior Iranian government officials have indicated that they did not find any evidence to suggest that the detained activists are spies. On May 22, 2018, ISNA reported that Issa Kalantari, the head of Iran’s Environmental Institution, said during a speech at a biodiversity 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 were spies.
On February 3, 2019, Mahmoud Sadeghi, a member of parliament from Tehran, tweeted that he had received information that the National Security Council headed by President Hassan Rouhani did not consider the activities of the detained environmentalists to be spying.