Iranians sought to save endangered cheetah. Glenn Greenwald exposed corruption in anti-animal Brazilian government.
TEHRAN, RIO DE JANEIRO––Eight imprisoned Iranian cheetah conservationists and Brazilian resident Glenn Greenwald, editor of the U.S.-based online political periodical The Intercept, have in common almost nothing except that they are animal advocates whose lives are in jeopardy under authoritarian governments.
At least four of the Iranians––three men and a woman––are facing death sentences for alleged spying, while tracking highly endangered cheetahs in remote desert habitat.
Their situation may have become more precarious as result of the current armed standoff among the U.S., United Kingdom, and Iran over the British seizure of the Iranian oil tanker Grace 2 off Gibralter for allegedly violating trade sanctions against Syria, and the retaliatory Iranian seizure of the British oil tanker Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz for allegedly colliding with an Iranian fishing boat.
Greenwald, by comparison, is not facing a death penalty prescribed by a court of law. Nor has Greenwald so far been arrested or charged with committing any crime.
But Greenwald is under investigation by allies of Jair Bolsonaro, the authoritarian Brazilian president. And Bolsonaro supporters have threatened Greenwald often with death in recent months, usually anonymously, in a nation with more than six times the U.S. murder rate per capita.
Unlike the Iranian cheetah conservationists, whose activities appeared to be thoroughly apolitical until their arrests, Greenwald is a political boat-rocker.
Greenwald in gunsights
A former U.S. constitutional lawyer turned investigative journalist, Greenwald is best known globally for publishing a series of exposés based on classified information leaked in mid-2013 to multiple media by former National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency contract employee Edward Snowden.
Greenwald in Brazil, however, is best known for extensively exposing alleged corruption in the Bolsonaro government, which was elected on an anti-corruption platform. In particular, Greenwald is known for exposing alleged corruption in the judicial machinations that toppled the previous Brazilian regime.
Greenwald is also widely known for being openly gay in a nation which celebrates machismo as a national trait.
But animal advocacy likewise appears to be a significant part of the mix of issues and positions that at least figuratively have put Greenwald in the gunsights of Bolsonaro backers.
“Detained without doing anything”
The Iranian cheetah conservationists, after more than a year of incommunicado pre-trial detention, went to trial in February 2019.
“It has been determined that these individuals were detained without doing anything,” Iranian vice president and environment minister Isa Kalantari said in October 2018. “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.”
But Kalantri also explained that the Iranian elected government could not intervene in the case, brought by the Revolutionary Guard, which retains authority over the elected government.
Case heard by “Iran’s hanging judge”
None of the cheetah conservationists were allowed to choose their own lawyers. They were represented, to whatever extent they had any representation, by Iranian Revolutionary Guard appointees, before Revolutionary Court Judge Abolqasem Salavati, also known as “Iran’s hanging judge.”
The only “evidence” presented against any of the defendants, according to the few media accounts reaching the Iranian public, was an apparent forced “confession” extracted from Niloufar Bayani, the only female defendant facing the death penalty. Bayani reportedly repudiated the confession during the first day of the trial.
A verdict on the fate of the eight has yet to be announced.
New chief justice helped to kill 5,000 political prisoners
But as bad as their situation already was, it appeared to worsen with the March 3, 2019 appointment by “supreme leader” Ayatollah Khamenei of Muslim cleric Sayyid Ebrahim Raisol-Sadati as chief justice of Iran.
Ebrahim Raisi, then deputy prosecutor of Tehran, the Iranian national capital, is believed by Amnesty International to have helped to expedite the secretive mid-1988 executions of as many as 5,000 political prisoners.
The grim odds notwithstanding, the families of the accused cheetah conservationists have repeatedly written to Raisi on their behalf, most recently on June 28, 2019, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran.
More than 510 days
“More than 510 days have passed since the detention of our loved ones, gentlemen Morad Tahbaz, Amir Hossein Khaleghi, Sam Rajabi, Houman Jowkar, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, and Taher Ghadirian, and ladies Sepideh Kashani and Niloufar Bayani,” the families reminded Raisi in their June 28, 2019 letter.
“Only God Almighty knows what we have been through in the past year and a half in dealing with the authorities’ refusal to follow the law and give information about our loved ones, who have been pressured and intimidated in solitary confinement and charged with something different every week and month.
“From the very beginning of this case,” the families said, “we have kept our calm, refrained from controversy and sought to help our loved ones purely through legal channels. We have also held several meetings with the relevant authorities to plead for their rights under the law.
“Release our loved ones”
“We again ask you to fulfill your initial pledge to the people that no one, regardless of status, should ignore and violate the law under any circumstances. We call upon you to end the temporary detentions and release our loved ones,” the families finished.
Iranian-Canadian sociology professor and Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation founder Kavous Seyyed-Emami, arrested with the eight other cheetah conservationists in January 2018, died soon after he was incarcerated.
“Authorities at Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison maintain that the 63-year-old Emami committed suicide while in custody, an explanation his family categorically rejects,” reports the Center for Human Rights in Iran.
Kavous Seyed-Emami and his wife Maryam Mombeini were both Canadian citizens, but Mombeini, while not formally arrested or charged with any offense, has not been allowed to leave Iran since her deceased husband was taken into custody.
Meanwhile in Brazil, reported Anna Jean Kaiser of Associated Press on July 11, 2019, “Several weeks after publishing explosive reports about a key member of Brazil’s far-right government, U.S. journalist Glenn Greenwald was called before a congressional committee to face hostile questions.
“A conservative website reported that federal police had requested that financial regulators investigate Greenwald’s finances. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist,” and his partner, left-leaning Brazilian member of congress David Miranda, “also say they have been receiving detailed death threats, calls for his deportation, and homophobic comments in an increasingly hostile political environment.”
Kaiser called Greenwald’s situation “the first major test of press freedom under Bolsonaro, who took office on January 1, 2019, and has openly expressed nostalgia for Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship — a period when newspapers were censored and some journalists tortured.
“Greenwald’s The Intercept news website last month published text messages purportedly showing then-judge and now Justice Minister Sergio Moro had improperly advised prosecutors in the corruption trial that jailed former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva,” Kaiser continued.
Moro responded that The Intercept is “a site aligned with criminal hackers.”
The Intercept reports infuriated Bolsonaro supporters.
Said Greenwald, to Kaiser, “We don’t know how far [the Bolsonaro government] is willing to go to fulfill this authoritarian vision that Bolsonaro has spent the last 30 years advocating. They were elected based on a promise to change Brazil in multiple ways, including eroding core freedoms that a democracy requires in order to survive — and one of those is a free press. Bolsonaro ran against the media. He talked about the Brazilian media as being agents of communism.
“We think they see this as a very important test case,” Greenwald said, “to create a precedent and environment and climate that sends a strong signal that whoever opposes them through journalism or activism will suffer serious consequences.”
Kaiser noted that “two owners of local media outlets were recently shot and killed in a coastal town outside Rio de Janeiro,” and that Greenwald “is now accompanied by private security guards.”
For “agents of communism,” as Bolsonaro backers would have it, Greenwald and The Intercept have considerable capitalist establishment backing, in particular from EBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar.
Sentient Media report
Greenwald also recently collaborated on a video project with the San Francisco-based vegan web news periodical Sentient Media.
Sentient Media on May 11, 2019 published an anonymous report, headlined “Hackers Target Brazil’s Leading Animal Rights News Site,” which appeared to have been produced with Greenwald’s input, if not actually authored by Greenwald himself.
“ANDA is Brazil’s leading animal rights news site,” explained the Sentient Media report.
Under founding editor Silvana Andrade, ANDA “published more than 40 original pieces of content about animal rights every day,” Sentient Media said, “or at least it did,” beginning in 2008, “until the website became the target of right-wing hacker groups leading up to Brazil’s general election this past year (2018).”
Since then, ANDA has been knocked offline many times, on one occasion for 30 days.
“Positioned against the government”
“ANDA has positioned itself against the government and has criticized the actions of Bolsonaro,” Berlin-based Brazilian environmental journalist, activist and film reviewer Antonio Pasolini told Sentient Media, “and ever since we’ve done that, the attacks have begun.”
Recounted Sentient Media, “Beginning in July 2018, ANDA published a series of articles denouncing the policies of President Bolsonaro (at the time only a candidate) and his stance against animals and the environment. The series focused on hot-button issues in Brazil like hunting, deforestation, and the use of pesticides, all of which Bolsonaro supported, both in campaign rhetoric and later with actual policy, and ANDA outright opposed.
“ANDA’s first article from the series criticizing Bolsonaro’s policies was published live on July 2, 2018, in a report on the then-presidential candidate’s proposed ban on the sale of organic produce in major supermarkets,” Sentient Media said. “Hackers began their assault the day the first article went live. Site traffic dropped sharply from 1.5 million users per month to 250,000.”