HRW slams Iran for upholding 'fabricated' espionage charges against environmentalists

HRW slams Iran for upholding 'fabricated' espionage charges against environmentalists
Iran's appeals court has upheld prison sentences for wildlife conservationists on spurious espionage charges, but even the highest levels of government have disputed the evidence.
3 min read
19 February, 2020
The detained activists (L-R) Ghadirian, Bayani, Khaleghi, Jokar, Rajabi, Kashani, Tahbaz and Kouhpayeh []
An Iranian revolutionary court has rejected the appeal of eight environmentalists serving lengthy prison sentences for their work for the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, prompting condemnation from Human Rights Watch (HRW) who slammed the sentences as "unjust" and the charges as based on no real evidence.

The conservationists were arrested by Iran's hardline Revolutionary Guards in January 2018, after taking pictures and tracking several endangered species in a "strategic area", and charged with spurious espionage offences - which even senior government officials have called into question.

HRW called for the immediate release of all members of the group, whose trial has been riddled with accusations of psychological torture that coerced them into giving confessions. The defendants have also not been allowed to choose their own lawyer, instead forced to be represented by lawyers pre-approved by the judiciary.

The upholding of the group's sentences, seven of whom are serving between six to 10 years' imprisonment for "cooperating with the hostile state of the US" was confirmed by judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili on Tuesday.

Iran's revolutionary courts are 'revolutionary' only in their ability to fabricate charges without evidence

The eighth member, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, is serving a four year sentence for "assembly and collusion to act against national security".

The group has already spent two years behind bars since their arrests in early 2018. Four of the activists were initially charged with "sowing corruption on earth", which carries the death penalty. They were cleared of the charge in October 2019.

"Iran's revolutionary courts are 'revolutionary' only in their ability to fabricate charges without evidence," said HRW's deputy Middle East director Michael Page. "Two years on, there’s still not a shred of evidence against these environmental experts, and the authorities should release them immediately."

The court reinstated 10-year sentences given to Niloufar Bayani and Morad Tahbaz and ordered them to return allegedly "illicit income". The "illicit" funds specified included an estimation of Bayani's salary from the United Nations Environment Programme, where she worked for six years before joining the wildlife conservation group, amounting to $360,000.

The court also upheld 8-year sentences for Houman Jokar and Taher Ghadirian on charges of spying on Iran for the US and Israel.

Similarly, the court upheld 6-year sentences against Amir Hossein Khaleghian, Sepideh Kashani, and Sam Rajabi also for spying on behalf of the US.

Since the group's arrest, several senior Iranian officials have voiced the fact there has been no evidence to indicate the detained activists are spies. In February 2019, Tehran MP Mahmoud Sadeghi even tweeted he had received information that the National Security Council, headed by President Hassan Rouhani, did not deem the environmentalists' activity to be spying.

Seven of the defendants were arrested in January 2018, along with Iranian-Canadian university professor Kavous Seyed Emami. Kouhpayeh was arrested a month later and tried with the group.

On February 10, 2018, Emami's family reported he had died in detention under suspicious circumstances. While authorities claim he committed suicide, there has been no impartial investigation into his death and his wife was banned from travelling until October 2019.

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