For the last nine months, the Iranian government has imprisoned seven environmental activists for the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation. The environmentalists, including the group’s leader Iranian-Canadian professor Kavous Seyed Emami, were held in January under unclear charges. It was announced in February that Emami had committed suicide.
The activists are accused of using environmental projects as a cover for the collection of classified Iranian strategic information, Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi reports. According to the Head of the Iranian Department of Environment Isa Kalantari, the Rouhani administration has conducted an investigation into these claims, but has so far not found any evidence to support them.
The seven activists are still unaware of the exact crimes they are facing and have no access to lawyers. Human Rights Watch suggests that the blatant lack of transparency suggests that the Iranian government has yet to gather enough evidence to charge the seven detainees with any true wrongdoing.
The Iranian government remains distrustful of foreigners and citizens working with international or non-governmental activist organisations. In 2015, Ayatollah Khamenei warned against increased negotiation with the United States and the West, fearing that it would lead to ”cultural, economic, political, and security infiltration.”
Iranian intelligence fears attempts of Western “infiltration” of Iran, often targeting organisations unaffiliated with the Iranian government. As the activists are non-state actors, they have been accused by supporters of the Iranian government of being Western saboteurs, undermining Iran from within. The Persian Wildlife Heritage has links to international organisations, having worked with the Canadian Wildlife Conservation Society and the United Nations as part of a campaign to protect the Asiatic Cheetah from extinction. It is likely that these connections to foreign organisations caused the Iranian government to distrust the Persian Wildlife Heritage and accuse its members of Western cooperation.
Climate change is a serious issue for Iran, with Al Jazeera reporting in August of some form of drought in 97 percent of the country. Compounded with the resumption of U.S. sanctions on Iran, the population is in need of activists who care about preserving the environment. Detaining environmental actors indefinitely dissuades passionate people from speaking up and serves only to suppress the environmentalist movement.
Iran must try or release the seven Persian Wildlife Heritage activists immediately. Their actions hurt non-governmental organizations in Iran, damage Iran’s image world-wide, and stifle the speech and human rights of its citizens.
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