(Beirut) – An Iranian-American-British conservationist convicted in Iran on bogus national security charges has ended his weeklong hunger strike, Human Rights Watch said today. Morad Tahbaz went on a hunger strike after his temporary release abruptly ended before the Iranian new year. Iranian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release him and other environmentalists wrongfully jailed with him.
On March 16, 2022, Iranian authorities released Tahbaz and allowed him to go to his family home in Tehran. But they abruptly detained him again two days later, despite an apparent agreement between Iranian and British authorities to guarantee his leave, leading him to embark on a hunger strike.
“It is abhorrent that Iranian officials continue to use dual and foreign nationals detained in Iran as bargaining chips,” said Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It is also particularly disappointing that British authorities did not do enough to ensure Iran would uphold the conditions they agreed to for Tahbaz’s furlough.”
The authorities from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Intelligence Organization have kept Tahbaz and colleagues from the local conservation group, the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, in detention since January 2018, accusing them of using an environmental project as a cover for espionage. Over the past four years, the authorities have tortured the detainees and committed other serious violations of their due process and fair trial rights, while failing to provide any evidence to support the bogus allegations against them.
In November 2019, an Iranian revolutionary court in Tehran sentenced Tahbaz and his colleagues to prison sentences ranging from 4 to 10 years on the charges that included “collaborating with the enemy state of the United States.” In February 2020, an appeals court upheld the 10-year prison sentenced imposed on Tahbaz as well as a demand to pay US$680,000, even though the court of first instance had found him innocent on the charge of “illegitimate income.”
On March 16, Iranian authorities released an Iranian-British national, Anousheh Ashoori, and allowed him to leave the country along with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an Iranian-British charity worker who was detained in Iran for over five years. The release came after the British government paid a £400 million debt from a failed 40-year-old arms deal. On that day, Liz Truss, the British foreign secretary, tweeted that “I can confirm Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori will return to the UK today, and Morad Tahbaz has been released from prison on furlough. They will be reunited with their families later today.”
An informed source told Human Rights Watch that on March 16, the authorities took Tahbaz home, accompanied by several government agents, who stayed at his house for 48 hours, then took him away again to an undisclosed location. On March 21, a spokesperson for the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said that Tahbaz was transferred to a hotel room in Tehran. The informed source said that after Tahbaz’s family refused to meet with him at the hotel for the fear that the Iranian authorities would use it as a photo-op, the authorities returned Tahbaz to prison.
Tahbaz suffers from cancer and has contracted Covid-19 twice in detention, but has not had adequate medical care.
On February 10, 2018, family members of Kavous Seyed Emami, an Iranian-Canadian professor who was arrested with Tahbaz and other members of the organization, reported that Seyed Emami had died in custody under suspicious circumstances. Iranian authorities claimed that he died by suicide, but they have not conducted an impartial investigation into his death. They banned his wife from traveling until October 2019.
On several occasions 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, the Iranian Students News Agency reported that Issa Kalantari, the former head of Iran’s Environmental Institution, said during a speech at a biodiversity conference that the government had formed a committee consisting of the intelligence, interior, and justice ministers of as well as the president’s legal deputy, and that they had concluded there was no evidence to suggest those detained were spies.
“Governments engaging with Iranian authorities should press them to release the wrongfully detained activists,” Sepehri Far said.