Iran to free 4 environmentalists convicted as spies

Iran to free 4 environmentalists convicted as spies
Iran's Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ordered the release of four Iranian environmentalists who were convicted of spying for the US government / CC: Niloofar Bayani
By bne Tehran bureau April 8, 2024

Iran's Leader Ali Khamenei has ordered the release of four environmentalists who were convicted of spying for the US, as reported by IRNA on April 7.

The environmentalists were arrested in 2018 alongside at least half a dozen other people including Iranian-Canadian Professor Kavous Seyed-Emami who allegedly hung himself in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison under suspicious circumstances. Following the arrests, a repatriated environmental expert of President Hassan Rouhani, Kaveh Madani, fled the country after an interrogation. Seyed-Emami’s widow was blocked from flying out of Iran but later managed to leave the country.

The decision to pardon the four individuals was announced by their lawyer, Hodjat Kermani, who said: "The four individuals who were convicted in this case will be released by the decision of Iran's Supreme Leader on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr.” Eid al-Fitr is one of the main holidays for Muslims, and it marks the end of fasting during Ramadan.

The four individuals, including two women called Niloufar Bayani and Sepideh Kashani and two men named Homan Jokar and Taher Qadirian, were part of a group of Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation.

Kashani told Khabar Online that Jokar and Qadirian served six years of an eight-year sentence, while Bayani had four years left, and Kashani had less than a month left of their respective imprisonments.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) welcomes the announcement of the impending release of four conservationists imprisoned in the Islamic Republic of Iran, including former UNEP colleague Niloufar Bayani.

According to the Iranian Prosecutor General's Office, they had collected classified information in areas of strategic importance to Iran's national security.

In addition to the four environmentalists, at least 2,100 convicts, including five foreigners, will be fully or partially amnestied, with 29 citizens having their sentences commuted, replacing the death penalty with imprisonment.

The Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) environmentalists received 58 years of prison time. The officially registered charity worked in remote areas of Iran to protect endangered wildlife and previously raised funds outside of Iran in the US, Canada and Europe.

No evidence was presented following the sentencing—the previous Rouhani administration’s Department of Environment head, Isa Kalantari, and even the Intelligence Ministry have said that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), who arrested the accused, did not present any real evidence against any of those charged.

The charges against the environmentalists were condemned in October 2018 by Erik Solheim, who served as executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) until November 2018. He told the Guardian: “I have transmitted our concerns twice in writing to the Iranian authorities, and have also spoken with the authorities in Tehran. But this latest news gives us even greater cause for alarm.”

Just why the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, founded by the late Seyed-Emami, came under suspicion is unclear. The judiciary claimed that the professor was a CIA-Mossad agent, alleging that his organisation used surveys of endangered Asiatic cheetahs as a pretext for spying in strategically sensitive areas.

A reporter close to the IRGC later claimed that the environmentalists were planting cameras and collecting soil samples to pinpoint sensitive areas used for Iranian missile tests.

Morad Tahbaz, arrested along with the rest of the people was released and allowed to leave the country in September 2023 in a wider agreement between the US and Iran.