Sentences of six to 10 years come amid violent repression of anti-government protests & five-day Internet shutdown
TEHRAN, Iran––The Iranian theocracy headed by Hassan Rouhani on November 20, 2019 celebrated “victory” over six days of public protest over fuel prices soaring by as much as 300%––and sent a warning to the protesters––by sentencing six of eight Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation cheetah conservationists who have been held incommunicado since January 2018 to prison terms ranging from six to ten years for alleged espionage.
Two other cheetah conservationists, Sam Rajabi and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, are expected to be sentenced on November 23, 2019.
Stiff prison terms but no death penalty––yet
None so far have received the death, penalty, but four of the eight defendants were charged with allegedly “sowing corruption on Earth,” which could carry the death penalty.
A ninth defendant, Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation founder Kavous Seyed-Emami, for whom all of the eight others either worked or volunteered, mysteriously died in Iranian Revolutionary Guard custody soon after all nine were arrested.
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.
A tenth Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation staff member Pouria Sepahvand was on February 2, 2019 detained for an unknown reason, and has been held at an unknown location.
Defendants were not allowed their own lawyers
Word of the November 20, 2019 sentencing reached the outside world through Tehran attorney Mohammad Hossein Aghasi. Aghasi formerly represented defendants Sam Rajabi and Taher Ghadirian, but was barred from attending the trial by Judge Abolghasem Salavati. Salavati allowed the defendants to be represented only by lawyers appointed by the court.
The Center for Human Rights in Iran said it had “confirmed the sentences with several people with direct knowledge of the court announcements.”
Convicted of having “contacts with the U.S. enemy state” by Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, Aghasi said, were Niloufar Bayani and Morad Tahbaz, each sentenced to serve a 10-year prison term; each sentenced to serve eight years; and Amir Hossein Khaleghi Hamidi, and Sepideh Kashani, each sentenced to serve six years.
“Bayani and Tahbaz had also been charged with ‘gaining illegitimate income,’ but this was not mentioned in the court’s verdict,” the Center for Human Rights in Iran said, “and it is not clear if they were convicted of the charge, according to Aghasi.”
Bayani was, however, “ordered to repay all the salaries she received from the United Nations for the several years she worked for them,” Aghasi added.
No release on bail likely during appeals
Aghasi said Rajabi and Ghadrian “had told their families they had been moved from solitary confinement in Evin Prison to cells with other inmates,” the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported.
“Given that the court has issued its verdict,” which will be appealed, “the [conservationists] should be released on bail until the final verdict [to be issued by the Appeals Court],” Aghasi said. “Temporary detention is only for special cases in order to prevent contact between the suspects and witness intimidation… but none of these apply.”
The letter of Iranian law notwithstanding, the defendants are unlikely to be released, on bail or otherwise, so long as the Tehran government, the Revolutionary Guard in particular, which enforces Islamicist rule, sees them as potentially useful hostages.
No written copy of verdicts, either
“The defendants were not allowed written copies of their verdicts,” the Center for Human Rights in Iran continued. “They were informed of the verdicts verbally. This is a common practice in politically motivated cases in Iran. The verdict will be published on the judiciary’s online registry, but a written verdict will not be issued because in political and security cases, the authorities don’t want to hand anything to the suspect or the lawyers with a signature or stamp on it. Instead, they take the prisoner to court and ask him/her and the lawyer to read the verdict.”
Unclear is whether the defendants will receive credit for prison time already served.
Reminded the Center for Human Rights in Iran, “The eight conservationists spent nearly two years in Tehran’s Evin Prison, with long periods in solitary confinement and often without access to lawyers.
The Center for Human Rights in Iran “urges the judicial authorities in Iran to review and reject these sentences and release the six who have been sentenced as well as the remaining two awaiting sentencing,’ said a CHRI media release.
“It was Iran’s judiciary on trial”
Elaborated Center for Human Rights in Iran executive director Hadi Ghaemi, “The authorities in Iran have given the conservationists the harshest sentences they could, after two cruel years of detainment, during which time they tried in vain to find any evidence of wrongdoing.
“It was not these eight people who were on trial,” Ghaemi continued. “It was Iran’s judiciary on trial, and they proved their reckless abandonment of the law, their contempt for due process, and their willingness to destroy lives and ignore international outrage over these unlawful prosecutions.”
How the case began
Asiatic cheetahs were believed to have been extirpated from Iran until in June 2005 a camera trap deployed by the New York City-based Wildlife Conservation Society, placed 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.
Formed in 2008, the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation took over management of the Iranian cheetah research project, identifying 82 individual cheetahs in 14 different protected habitats between December 2011 and November 2013.
News coverage of the sightings, however, embarrassed the Iranian regime. The major threats to the Iranian cheetah turned out to be government-sponsored development projects.
Missile silos built in cheetah habitat
According to the opposition news web site Kalame, in a an April 16, 2018 report translated by the Center for Human Rights in Iran, “Although these regions were registered with the United Nations as protected areas, 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.”
Funder had problematic links
An apparent aggravating factor, reported National Geographic writer Kayleigh E. Long, was that the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation “occasionally worked with the New York-based Panthera, one of the most prominent big cat conservation organizations in the world. On several instances, Panthera provided technical assistance and sent experts to Iran as part of the Conservation of Asiatic Cheetah and Its Habitat Project (CACP), funded by the United Nations and Iran’s Department of the Environment.
“But in October 2017,” Long continued, “the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation severed ties with Panthera over anti-Iran comments made by its billionaire funder Thomas Kaplan. Kaplan helps fund the lobby group United Against Nuclear Iran, which argues for sanctions and regime change.”
United Against Nuclear Iran, Long said, “counts among its members a number of senior intelligence and defense figures, including the former heads of Mossad [the Israeli national intelligence bureau] and the CIA—agencies the researchers would ultimately be accused of working for.”
Panthera sought to distance itself from Kaplan, but apparently not in terms persuasive to the Iranian regime.
“Detained without doing anything”
The Iranian cheetah conservationists who have now been sentenced, plus Rajabi and Kouhpayeh, finally 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 had 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 at the time that the Iranian elected government could not intervene in the case, brought by the Revolutionary Guard, which retains authority over the elected government.
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 Bayani, the only female defendant who faced the death penalty. Bayani reportedly repudiated the confession during the first day of the trial.
Protesters killed, Internet shut down
No announcement was made before the November 20, 2019 sentencing that the eight defendants had been convicted. The sentencing came during an Iranian government shutdown of Internet and social media connections lasting nearly five days.
Amnesty International on November 20, 2019 told media that it had received credible reports that at least 106 protesters in 21 Iranian cities had been killed during six days of demonstrations against the government imposed fuel price hikes.