Human Rights Watch slams Iran’s jailing of wildlife experts

Human Rights Watch slams Iran’s jailing of wildlife experts

Advocacy group decries ‘cowardly decision’ and ‘unjust sentences’ after Tehran, claiming they are US spies, imprisons 6 researchers tracking endangered species

Illustrative: A prison in Iran. (CC BY-SA Ehsan Iran/Wikipedia)
Illustrative: A prison in Iran. (CC BY-SA Ehsan Iran/Wikipedia)

Human Rights Watch on Friday condemned Iran’s handing jail terms to six environmental experts it accused of spying for the US.

“Such unjust sentences would be yet another hallmark of the abusive nature of Iran’s revolutionary courts,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director of the group.

Iranian justice officials said jail terms from four to 10 years had been handed down Wednesday to six of the eight people who were arrested in January 2018.

They had been working with the group Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, which aims to preserve biodiversity and track endangered species, especially the critically endangered Asiatic Cheetahs, Human Rights Watch said.

After they spent 20 months in pretrial detention, “Iran’s revolutionary court doubled down by sentencing them to up to 10 years, apparently without allowing them to see all of the evidence,” Page said.

An Asiatic Cheetah, named ‘Koushki,’ crouches at the Miandasht Wildlife Refuge in Jajarm, northeastern Iran, May 25, 2014. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

The sentences were handed down at a time when Iranian authorities have shut down internet access after a wave of violent protests that were sparked by a fuel price hike last week.

“The authorities are announcing this court verdict during a government internet shutdown designed to hide a vicious crackdown against Iranian protesters,” Page said.

“The court’s cowardly decision to do this suggests they fear scrutiny of their record in putting these environmental experts on trial,” he said.

The case shows how spying charges and convictions can be levied against dual nationals and those with Western ties in Iran in closed-door trials before its Revolutionary Court.

Iran’s Revolutionary Court typically handles espionage cases and others involving smuggling, blasphemy and attempts to overthrow the country’s Islamic government. Westerners and Iranian dual nationals often find themselves tried and convicted in closed-door trials in these courts, only later to be used as bargaining chips in negotiations.

Iranian state media and judiciary officials did not immediately comment on the verdicts, which is common in Revolutionary Court cases. The semiofficial Fars news agency, close to the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, carried a short story acknowledging the verdicts.

Mohammad Hossein Aghasi, a lawyer for several of the defendants, told Shargh daily this week that two experts, Niloufar Bayani and Morad Tahbaz, had received 10-year sentences.

Taher Ghadirian and Houman Jokar were given eight years and Amirossein Khaleghi and Sepideh Kashani six years. The possible sentences for Sam Rajabi and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh were not yet known.

The former head of the foundation, Iranian-Canadian university professor Kavous Seyed Emami, 63, allegedly committed suicide in prison in February 2018, two weeks after his arrest.

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