Accused of “sowing corruption on earth”
TEHRAN, Iran––Because fair trials in Iran are historically scarcer than the highly endangered Asiatic cheetah, who survives only in remote habitat in the eastern part of the country, the global conservation, scientific, and human rights communities are anxious as a cat on a hot tin roof about “espionage” indictments brought against four cheetah researchers on October 24, 2017.
The indictments could bring the four the death penalty.
IUCN wild cat & bear experts
The four are believed to be three men and one woman.
The men are Taher Ghadirian, a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature cat specialist and bear specialist groups; Houman Jowkar, also a member of the IUCN cat specialist group; and Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian/American director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation.
The woman is Niloufar Bayani, who joined the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation in June 2017. Bayani was previously a project advisor under the disaster risk reduction portfolio of the United Nations Environment Program, according to the UNEP web site.
Founder of wildlife charity dead in prison
The four were arrested by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to Human Rights Watch, on January 24 and 25 .
Arrested with them and still in prison were four other Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation members identified as an Iranian/American woman, Sepideh Kashani, and three men, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Sam Rajabi, and Kavous Seyed-Emami, who was the Iranian/Canadian founder of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation.
Iranian authorities notified Sayed-Emami’s wife Maryam Mombeini on February 8, 2018 that he had “committed suicide” in prison, allegedly by “strangulation.”
No further details of the purported suicide have been released.
Sunglasses & a “fishing rod”
Instead, attorney Payam Derafshan told Mahtab Vahidi Rad of Radio Farda, the Iranian branch of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty external broadcast service, the Revolutionary Guard on February 13, 2018 broadcast a video that “shows Seyed-Emami and his family walking in the countryside, wearing sunglasses. Immediately after that, the logo of the CIA appears, to suggest that Seyed-Emami has been involved in espionage.”
The video also presents a fishing rod as a “highly complicated gadget for secret communications with spying stations abroad,” Derafshan said.
The “fishing rod” might actually have been Sayed-Emami’s cane (shown in the photo above.)
As the sunglasses and “fishing rod” proved unpersuasive, Tehran member of parliament Mahmoud Sadeghi tweeted on June 25, 2018, “Numerous intelligence agents, carrying several large boxes, stormed Seyed-Emami’s house, ” and maintained that they had a warrant to use the residence as the location for shooting a film, titled “The Downfall.”
Widow not allowed to leave Iran
Within days, in early July 2018, Seyed-Emami’s sons Ramin and Mehran Seyed-Emami, who live in Canada, sued Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting in Tehran for slander. The Revolutionary Guard is believed likely to keep the case from advancing.
Their mother, Mombeini, meanwhile was not allowed to leave Iran with them on March 7, 2018, and has not been allowed to join them since.
“The Islamic Republic’s prosecuter-general office is responsible for barring people from leaving the country,” Derafshan told Radio Farda.
As of May 25, 2018, Derafshan added, “Mombeini’s name is not on the list of people officially barred from leaving the country. Who exactly barred her from leaving Iran is still a mystery.”
Canada says “Release her or no deals”
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau took office with a 2015 pledge to restore diplomatic relations with Iran, suspended since 2012 and restricted since the June 2003 rape and murder of Iranian/Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi while in police custody in Tehran.
Canada has, however, made negotiations with Iran conditional on the release of Mombeini, a position reaffirmed by foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland on November 1, 2018.
More voices for animals & habitat busted
In the interim the Iranian Revolutionary Guard expanded the initial round of arrests of Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation personnel into a general crackdown on animal and habitat researchers and activists.
Abdoreza Kouhpayeh, who identifies herself on her Instagram account as an “environmentalist cyclist and mountaineer wildlife photographer,” was arrested on February 25, 2018, apparently in connection with the case.
During the same time frame at least fifteen other Iranian habitat protection activists were arrested and imprisoned by the Revolutionary Guard, seven of them also reportedly on charges of allegedly spying for the U.S. and Israel.
Iranian official jailed, released, joins United Nations
Also detained, from February to April 2018, was Kaveh Madani, then the deputy head of the Iranian Environmental Protection Organization. Madani, on release, left Iran to become vice president of the United Nations Environmental Assembly.
“His detention dealt a blow to the administration of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, which last year plucked him from his position at Imperial College London for the government job,” assessed Jonathan Watts and Saeed Kamali Dehghan of The Guardian.
Watts and Dehghan speculated that the Revolutionary Guard might have targeted the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation “because many of its members are bi-national figures who were educated in the west and have connections with international conservation groups.
“Why is the cheetah becoming such an issue?”
“Under a column headlined ‘Iranian Cheetah or Spy?’” Watts and Dehghan mentioned, “the editor of [the hardline conservative newspaper Kayhan, Hossein Shariatmadari, who was appointed to his job by supreme leader Ali Khamenei, asked: ‘Why is the cheetah becoming such an important issue? Why are too many foreigners entering Iran for this? What are the real identities of US/European experts coming to Iran? And why are they so keen to search the deserts all day and night?’”
Iranian senior military adviser Hassan Firouzabadi, Watts and Dehghan recalled, “In one previous case claimed the country’s nuclear program had been monitored using lizards that ‘could attract atomic waves.’”
But the most thorough explanation of the arrests to date, posted on April 16, 2018 by the opposition news web site Kalame, translated by the Center for Human Rights in Iran, is that “The environmental activists are not spies, but in fact resisted the Revolutionary Guard’s excessive demands to encroach on environmentally protected regions for the installation of missile sites.
“Although these regions were registered with the United Nations as protected areas,” Kalame said, “the Revolutionary Guard thought it could build military sites there without any problem. Thus it went ahead with installing missile silos and equipment. The move met opposition from environmental groups,” who “made clear that the Revolutionary Guard was endangering their activities to collect information and take photos of animals and plants for the United Nations.”
The Revolutionary Guard, Kalame said, “asked these groups to instead submit old photos in their annual reports to the United Nations. The conflict went on for years and eventually, the Revolutionary Guard used [alleged] espionage as an excuse to arrest the environmentalists so that it could continue its activities in the protected regions.”
Wild sheep researchers busted too
In early May 2018, the Center for Human Rights in Iran updated, the Revolutionary Guard “also arrested more than 40 environmentalists, rangers, and some of their relatives in the southern Iranian harbor city of Bandar Lengeh and surrounding towns,” who “were working on a Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation-sponsored regional wildlife project to protect local populations of ram and wild sheep.”
Friends and relatives of the detainees were hopeful after Iranian member of parliament Mahmoud Sadeghi on May 9, 2018 tweeted that, “In yesterday’s meeting of the parliamentary committee on national security and foreign affairs, in response to questions to the intelligence minister about the reasons for the crackdown on environmental activists, the intelligence ministry’s counter-intelligence experts responded that they had found no evidence at all of their ties to espionage.”
“No evidence,” says Intelligence Ministry
Added Iranian vice president Isa Kalantari, who heads the national Department of Environment, “It has been determined that these individuals were detained without doing anything. The Intelligence Ministry has concluded that there is no evidence that these individuals were spies. The government’s fact-finding committee has concluded that the detained activists should be released.”
The Center for Human Rights in Iran on June 26, 2018 reported, citing “a source close to the detainees’ families,” that “Sam Rajabi’s nose has been injured and Taher Bagherian’s front teeth have been broken and Niloufar Bayani was brought blindfolded to a meeting with her family by an agent who told her mother that Niloufar should cooperate [with her interrogators].”
Since then, Rajabi’s mother, Lili Houshmand Afshar, and his sister, Katayon Rajabi, both still living in Tehran, have published statements calling for release of all the defendants, in defiance of Revolutionary Guard pressure to maintain silence.
“Sowing corruption on earth”
On October 24, 2018, according to Humane Rights Watch, Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi told a news conference that four of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation personnel have been charged with “sowing corruption on earth,” a vague catch-all for somehow being perceived by the Islamacist clerics ruling Iran since 1980 as a threat to their totalitarian dominion.
Dolatabadi “justified the charge based on a claim that the activists were ‘seeking proximity to military sites with the cover of the environmental projects and obtaining military information from them’,” said Human Rights Watch.
Since their arrests, “None of the detainees have had access to a lawyer of their choice and authorities have not set a trial date,” reported Richard Stone, senior science editor at Tangled Bank Studios in Chevy Chase, Maryland, in an October 30, 2018 summary of the case for Science magazine.
“On September 30, 2018,” Stone added, “family members said on social media that judicial authorities had told them that the environmentalists can only be represented by lawyers from a pre-approved list of 20 that the judiciary published in June.”
The Revolutionary Guard, Stone wrote, “accused them of using camera traps—intended for monitoring rare Asiatic cheetahs and other wildlife—to eavesdrop on the nation’s ballistic missile program.”
How can a camera trap spy on a missile?
That allegation raised a basic technical issue. Camera traps designed to monitor animal traffic only operate when animals trip heat or motion sensors from just a few yards away, at most, and usually have a much shorter focal distance than a good cell phone camera.
There is more than 150 years of history of spies around the world pretending to be birders as pretext for using high-powered binoculars, including the real-life ornithologist/spy James Bond for whom novelist Ian Fleming named his most renowned protagonist, but very little history––if any––of anyone using camera traps to monitor military technology, which logically would be kept both at a fenced-off distance and hidden.
“Many observers view the detainees as pawns in a power struggle between the hardline Revolutionary Guards and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s relatively moderate administration,” continued Stone. “But Rouhani’s allies have been powerless to secure the conservationists’ release.”
IUCN “deeply alarmed”
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature “is deeply alarmed by the charges,” Species Survival Commission chair Jon Paul Rodríguez told Stone, adding, “As far as I am aware, practically the only information we have on the Asiatic cheetah comes from camera traps.”
Iranian vice president Isa Kalantri, who in May 2018 said there was no evidence against any of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation detainees, on October 22, 2018 told the Iranian Student News Agency that the elected government could no longer intervene in the case brought by the Revolutionary Guard.
The detainees not charged with alleged offenses carrying the death penalty are believed to be facing charges for which they could be imprisoned for up to six years.
Camera traps find cheetahs
Following the Iranian revolution of 1979 and years of neglect of any sort of wildlife protection, Asiatic cheetahs were believed to have been persecuted by shepherds possibly to extinction, while gazelles, their main prey, were hunted to extreme scarcity.
After the International Union for the Conservation of Nature listed Asiatic cheetahs as “critically endangered” in 1996, both gazelles and cheetahs were protected to some extent in Iran.
Whether Iran still had a breeding population of wild Asiatic cheetahs was uncertain, however, until in June 2005 a camera trap deployed by Wildlife Conservation Society scientists, in partnership with the Iranian Department of Environment, photographed an adult female and four cubs in an isolated part of the Dar-e Anjir Wildlife Refuge.
Captive breeding scuttled
Camera traps discovered four more adult cheetahs during the next month, fueling hopes in India that some Asiatic cheetahs might be trapped and bred to reintroduce the long-lost Indian population.
On paper, at least, it was almost a done deal.
“However, things changed in 2006,” recalled Indian wildlife journalist Shubhobroto Ghosh, “when a United Nations resolution was moved at the behest of the U.S. to slap sanctions on Iran for defying the International Atomic Energy Agency to go forward with their nuclear programs. India voted against Iran,” after which “the Iranians cancelled the cheetah transfer program and denied visas to Indian scientists to visit Iran.”
But the Wildlife Conservation Society, umbrella for the New York City zoos, and Panthera, the wild cat conservation organization begun by the late WCS scientist Alan Rabinowitz, were somehow able to continue their work in Iran, reporting in March 2007 that they had fitted two Asiatic cheetahs with radio collars.
82 cheetahs identified
One of the cheetahs was later killed in a fight with a leopard.
Between December 2011 and November 2013, however, 84 cheetahs were seen in 14 different protected habitats, of whom 82 individual cheetahs were identified from camera trap photos.
The project, by then led by the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, was especially encouraged in October 2013 when a four-member team working in Khar Turan National Park reportedly saw and filmed five cheetahs, four of them looking directly into the camera. This was about 200 miles from the similar sighting at the Dar-e Anjir Wildlife Refuge.
News coverage of the sighting, however, embarrassed the Iranian regime.
Road construction & mines
“Unfortunately, due to sanctions, we have not been able to reach international funds,” Iranian Cheetah Society founder Morteza Eslami told Saeed Kamali Dehghan of The Guardian.
“Due to sanctions we had serious difficulties in obtaining camera traps, for example,” Eslami said. “It is not possible to directly buy them. We have to go through a number of intermediaries. That means that we have to pay more to get our hands on them. Also, we have banking restrictions, making it difficult for us to pay for camera traps.”
In addition, Eslami said, “Road construction and mines are seriously endangering and undermining our work.”
In that regard, the wildlife conservation policies of the Iran Revolutionary Guard and those of the U.S. government under the Donald Trump presidency would appear to have much in common.