Jailed Iranian Conservationists Face Unfounded Spying Charges

In January 2018, eight conservation scientists from the Tehran-based Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) were arrested, accused of setting camera traps to spy. This baseless claim has been propounded by Iran’s hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, known as the Sepah. The conservationists, who have worked to preserve the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah, remain detained in Iran’s Evin prison, facing farcical trials. The arrested include Managing Director Kavous Seyed-Emami, Niloufar Bayani, Houman Jowkar, Taher Ghadirian, Sepideh Kashani, Amir Hossein Khaleghi, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, Morad Tahbaz, and Sam Radjabi.

Under mysterious conditions, hidden from the gaze of CCTV cameras, Seyed-Emami, an Iranian-Canadian sociologist, died on 8 February, 2018. Prison authorities claim he committed suicide, but have refused to release his body unless his family agrees to an immediate burial without an independent autopsy. Seyed-Emami’s family has rejected the explanation of suicide. Niloufar Bayani, Houman Jowkar, Taher Ghadirian and Morad Tahbaz may face a similar fate: charged with “corruption on Earth,” the death penalty potentially awaits them. Charged with espionage, Sepideh Kashani, Amir Hossein Khaleghi, and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh could face up to 10 years in prison. According to Amnesty International, Sam Radjabi, facing up to 11 years in prison, was charged with “co-operating with hostile states against the Islamic Republic” and “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security.”

The international community has responded with a tidal wave of condemnation. The United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Wildlife Conservation Society, World Wildlife Fund, and the European Parliament have spoken out against their jailing. According to Science, 330 conservationists and scholars from 66 countries have written to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, strongly condemning “the possibility that the neutral field of conservation could ever be used to pursue political objectives.” The Wildlife Conservation Society, a nonprofit in New York, stated that the Iranian environmentalists should not be “put into personal jeopardy for pursuing scientific knowledge and preserving their country’s unique natural heritage.”

This chorus of criticism, both international and domestic, has placed significant pressure on the Sepah, providing hope that the conservationists may be released. In an interview with Science, David Laylin, an 82-year-old ecologist in Orange, Virginia, who has long helped broker exchanges between Iranian and Western scientists and environmentalists, explained that “the Sepah don’t operate in a vacuum,” and can’t continue to march obstinately ahead, clinging to bogus charges as its claims are drowned out by international and domestic outcry. According to Laylin, if the conservationists are to be released, “some face-saving scenario” needs to happen, permitting the Sepah to release all the conservationists “without looking foolish and incompetent.”  Having barraged the Sepah with a mountain of condemnation, the international response has proved itself substantial. If the conservationists are to leave Evin prison, alive and free, international and domestic outcry must not diminish to a weak whine.

Even a passing understanding of camera traps indicates the absurdity of the Sepah’s claims. According to National Geographic, camera traps can “only capture low-resolution images of animals passing by at close range.” Camera traps are standard practice in the field of wildlife research, and are crucial to understanding the remaining population of a species like the Asiatic cheetah. With fewer than 50 Asiatic cheetahs left in the wild, this imperiled cat exists on the brink of extinction. The PWHF’s conservation efforts are crucial to the survival of the embattled species, so why has the organization’s apolitical and unwavering dedication to conservation been politicized?

According to Laylin, hardliners are exceedingly paranoid about any contact with the West. The West represents a sort of existential threat to the tenets of the revolution, and any communication with it may undermine cultural values. Moreover, the Sepah believes “that scientific exchanges or conservation work could lead to Iranians being proselytized or turned into spies.”

For their crime of conservation, the Iranian scientists have been held incommunicado in Evin prison, denied access to lawyers, and physically and psychologically tortured. According to Amnesty International, Niloufar Bayani “told the court that she only made a confession after she was broken through physical and psychological torture and that she later retracted her confession.” She described interrogators as threatening to beat her, inject her with hallucinogenic drugs, pull out her fingernails, and arrest her parents.

With little hope of a fair trial, the lives of Asiatic cheetahs and their dedicated conservationists remain uncertain. As the Sepah wields considerable power over Iran, the hope that the elected government can leverage any authority over it is dim. For now, the international community must not dull its cries, for silence may spell a death sentence for conservationists and cheetahs alike.