Iran: environmentalists languish in jail
Eight environmental activists arbitrarily detained in Iran in January and February remain in detention eight months later without clear charges, Human Rights Watch said Oct. 11. The organization called upon Iranian authorities to either immediately release them or charge them with recognizable crimes and produce evidence to justify their continued detention. On Sept. 30, family members said on social media that judicial authorities had told them that the detained environmentalists can only be represented by lawyers from a pre-approved list of 20 that the judiciary had published in June. Authorities have not allowed the detainees access to lawyers of their choice, or set a trial date. "Iran's judiciary is again highlighting its role as key functionaries in a repressive state machinery rather than defenders of justice," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Even though the environmentalists have spent eight months in pre-trial detention, the authorities have still not come up with a criminal charge against them."
On Jan. 24 and 25, the Revolutionary Guards intelligence division arrested Houman Jokar, Sepideh Kashani, Niloufar Bayani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Sam Rajabi, Taher Ghadirian, Kavous Seyed Emami and Morad Tahbaz, all members of a local environmental group, the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation. On Feb. 13, Abbas Jafaridolatabadi, the prosecutor for Tehran, told reporters that the detained activists are accused of using environmental projects as a cover to collect classified strategic information.
It is unclear what classified strategic information they could potentially collect, as their organization says it only works to conserve and protect Iran's flora and fauna, including the Asiatic cheetah, an endangered species in Iran.
On Feb. 10, the family of Seyed Emami, an Iranian-Canadian university professor, reported that he had died in detention in unknown circumstances. Iranian authorities claimed that he committed suicide, but they have not conducted an impartial investigation into his death and have placed a travel ban on his wife, Maryam Mombeini.
On Feb. 25, the Persian-language Etemed newspaper reported that authorities had arrested four other environmental activists, including Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, another member of the wildlife heritage group, who remains in detention. The three others were released.
On May 9, Mojgan Jamshidi, a journalist who covers environmental issues, tweeted that authorities had arrested more than 40 local environmental activists in the city of Bander-e-Lengeh, in Hormozgan province in southern Iran. All 40 were later released, two sources confirmed to Human Rights Watch.
Several senior Iranian government officials have said that they did not find any evidence to suggest that the detained activists are spies. On May 22, ISNA news agency reported that Issa Kalantari, the head of Iran's Environment Department , said during a speech at a bio-diversity conference that the government had formed a committee consisting of the ministers of intelligence, interior, and justice and the president's legal counsel, and that they had concluded there was no evidence to suggest those detained are spies. Kalantari added that the committee said the environmentalists should be released.
A source who wished to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch on October 3 that a person who works in the prosecutor’s office told families of four of the detained environmentalists that they had been accused of "sowing corruption on earth," a serious charge that carries the risk of execution. One of the families' lawyers told the Center for Human Rights in Iran Oct. 8 that authorities have issued five indictments. However, he said he believed authorities are falsely threatening the families with the “corruption on earth” charge to scare the families into choosing lawyers from the approved list.
Article 48 of Iran's 2014 criminal procedure law says that detainees charged with various offenses, including national or international security crimes, political, and media crimes, must select their counsel from a pre-approved pool selected by Iran's judiciary during the investigation. The list published in June of approved lawyers for such crimes in Tehran province did not include any women or human rights lawyers.
Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iran must ensure that anyone facing criminal charges has access to a lawyer of their choosing. Anyone arrested should be promptly informed of any charges against them, and pre-trial detention should be an exception, not the rule. All detained are entitled to trial within a reasonable time or release.
Under article 286 of Iran's penal code, "Any person, who extensively commits a felony against people’s physical safety, offenses against internal or international security of the state, spreading lies, disruption of the economic system of the state, arson and destruction of properties" can be considered among the "corrupt on earth" and sentenced to death if the court finds "the intention to cause extensive disruption in the public order, or creating insecurity, or causing vast damage or spreading corruption and prostitution in a large scale, or the knowledge of effectiveness of the acts committed." If not, the sentence can be between six months and five years.
"Iran's leaders need to search no further for a source of simmering societal anger against them than the judiciary's despicable treatment of peaceful activists who are only trying to mitigate the country’s many serious problems, including environmental crises," Whitson said. (HRW, Oct. 11)