6 Feb – Iranian environmental activist, Niloufar Bayani, who has been held for more than a year by IRGC intelligence, alleged in a court session headed by Judge Salavati that she was repeatedly threatened and attacked by authorities, and was forced to make confessions. She said the ‘confessions’ were made under physical torture and intense psychological pressure, and that she had retracted all of them after the first round of investigations.
Local media reported that on January 30th, Bayani and seven other Iranian environmental activists accused of spying, appeared in a Tehran court for a closed-door trial. During that court session they learned that the first half of their indictment is based on retracted forced ‘confessions’.
According to the state news agency IRNA, Mohammad-Hossein Aghasi, who represents one of the accused, said that he was not present in court as the state designated its own handpicked lawyers to represent the defendants. IRNA reported that three lawyers were present at the trial, referring to them as “Reza Jafari, Beigi and Hosseini.” The lawyers were approved by Judiciary Chief Sadegh Larijani.
Present at the closed-door trial at Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court, presided by Judge Abolqasem Salavati, were defendants Houman Jowkar, Taher Ghadirian, Morad Tahbaz, Sepideh Kashani, Niloufar Bayani, Amir Hossein Khaleghi, Sam Rajabi and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh.
Niloufar Bayani interrupted the court session several times, and objected that her ‘confessions’ had become the basis for the trial. Her allegations are especially important because four of the Iranian environmental activists were charged with “sowing corruption on Earth,” which can carry the death sentence in Iran.
The activists were “seeking proximity to military sites with the cover of the environmental projects and obtaining military information from them”, according to Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi.
IRNA reported that three of the activists have been accused of espionage, and one has been charged with “conspiracy against national security”. They were arrested by the Revolutionary Guards on January 24th and 25th. Mizan, the judiciary’s official news agency, and state-run Fars News Agency called to the defendants “individuals accused of spying on the country’s military installations” in their reports.
The environmentalists are all members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation. On February 13th, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, the Tehran prosecutor, told reporters that the detained activists are accused of using environmental projects as a cover for collecting classified strategic information. The Foundation claims to only work to conserve and protect the flora and fauna in Iran.
The environmentalists have not been given access to lawyers of their choice or have had a trial date set. On social media, family members said that they were told by judicial authorities that the detained environmentalists can only be represented by lawyers from a pre-approved list of 20 that the judiciary had published in June 2018.
It has also been reported that the detainees were subjected to prolonged periods of solitary confinement and denied phone calls with family members.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch said, “Iran’s judiciary is again highlighting its role as key functionaries in a repressive state machinery rather than defenders of justice.” She added, “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.”
Niloufar Bayani was a Biology student at McGill university. Bayani graduated in 2009 and later worked for the United Nations Environment Programme. She went to Iran to do environmental work nearly a year ago, where was arrested and accused of espionage. She has been in the notorious Evin prison ever since. McGill University has not commented, but University spokesperson Chris Chapello told the Montreal Gazette that McGill is “aware of the situation and has been in contact with the Canadian authorities.”
Hayley Lapalme is working toward her friend Bayani’s release. She said in an interview, “To learn this person, who had a wonderful presence in our community here [in Toronto], is now in a prison cell — it’s stunning, really.”
Lapalme added, “Niloufar is this person who has this lightness, goodness, intelligence and generosity about her that is really contagious. She really brings out the best in people.”
Bayani’s environmental field work included the study of zebra mussels in Montreal and researching marine life in Belize. She went to Iran to do field work on Asiatic cheetahs, an endangered species in the country with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation.
Iranian authorities have accused Bayani of spying and could face the death penalty. Lapalme said, “The kind of work that we can practice freely and that is appreciated here, it’s work that’s being criminalized now in Iran.”
More than 300 conservationists, including primatologist Jane Goodall, signed an open letter that demands the release of Bayani and eight other environmentalists in Iran. The letter states, “We are convinced that their work and research had no second means or objectives. We are horrified about the thought that the neutral field of conservation could ever be used to pursue political objectives.”