This report includes additional reporting from a citizen journalist based in Iran.
The death in custody of Kavous Seyed-Emami has shocked Iran and Iranians around the world. On February 9, the family of the well-known Iranian-Canadian sociologist, university professor and environmentalist announced that he had died at Evin Prison, less than a month after he was arrested. His son Ramin Seyed-Emami tweeted that his family had been told that he had committed suicide.
According to his son, Kavous Seyed-Emami, who was the managing director of Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), an NGO known for its efforts to save the Iranian cheetah from extinction, was arrested on January 24 and the family received the news of his death on February 8.
“There were many confessions against this individual and he confessed against himself as well, and unfortunately he committed suicide,” Tehran’s prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi announced on Saturday, February 10. The prosecutor offered no details about the confessions, but confirmed that a number of individuals had been arrested. Two days later, on February 12, he told the Dana website that the arrested had used the cover of working on scientific and environmental projects to gain access to important and "strategic" locations and gather intelligence. All had links to foreign intelligence services — and Israel's Mossad in particular. He confirmed they had been arrested at the end of January. He also stated that more information about the cases would be released in the coming days.
A former colleague of Seyed-Emami who had worked with the United Nations office in Tehran told IranWire that, as of now, charges of espionage and “theft and smuggling of historical artifacts” had been brought against the individuals arrested.
Those arrested include Hooman Jokar, head of the Asiatic Cheetah Project; Niloofar Bayani, a former United Nations Environment program director and employee for the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) since June 2017; Iranian-American environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, who is a trustee of the PWHF; and environmental activists Sepideh Kashani, Amir Hossein Khaleghi, Sam Rajabi and Taher Ghadirian. But perhaps most shocking was the arrest of Kaveh Madani, Deputy Head of Iran’s Department of the Environment for International Affairs, Innovation and Social Participation. Authorities gave no reason for his arrest, but it on Monday, February 12, news emerged that he had been released.
Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, told the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) that the council had questions about the activities and connections of some NGOs working on the environment and water issues. He said the NGOs “are now under investigation” but denied any knowledge about the arrests [Persian link].
“These people have spent half of their lives to protect the environment,” said a former member of the UN office who worked the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and who asked to remain anonymous. “These charges seem unreal.”
The former UN employee added that people who work on UN-backed projects in Iran, as with other environmental NGOs and organizations, send their proposals to UNDP and, if approved, a budget request is sent to New York. The UN in New York then awards a two-year budget, after which the financing stops. Within these two years, these NGOs must become self-sufficient and pay for themselves.
The person IranWire spoke with emphasized that no budget can be allocated without the home government of the NGO approving it. “The budget received by the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation was no exception to this rule. The projects aim to preserve the native flora and fauna and architecture. In the last few years, the PWHF has concentrated its efforts on saving the Iranian cheetah. Its budget does not come only from international institutions. The Iranian government has paid a share as well.”
The Government has Full Knowledge
In fact, said the UN source, the Iranian government is involved in all environmental projects, which are partially financed by the Department of the Environment and the Forests Organization. The source emphasized that Islamic Republic officials are fully aware of the activities and sources of funding for these projects and NGOs.
Although the UN is the top contributor, it is just one of the international organizations that provide these NGOs with funds, But, the expert said, because “the staff of the UN office in Iran are cautious” and always try to stay away from politics, they would not react to the arrests, “at least not in the media.”
The source said it might be possible that some of the individuals arrested could have taken issue with particular projects “because they believed that they would hurt the environment.” Removing individuals such as Kaveh Madani could weaken resistance to some of these projects.
But, essentially, what lies behind the arrest of the environmental activists remains a mystery — and it will do nothing to ease the tension between the Rouhani administration and more hardline factions within Iran. “Supporters of wildlife do not commit suicide,” tweeted Hessamoddin Ashna, advisor to President Hassan Rouhani, perhaps in an effort to urge the judiciary to be more transparent about the circumstances of Seyed-Emami’s death. But for the moment, the judiciary is in a more powerful position. It arrested Kaveh Madani, a high official from the Department of Environment and, on February 11 the head of Tehran’s Justice Department announced that more arrests are likely.
Increase in Suicides and Mysterious Pills
Seyed-Emami is the third prisoner to have allegedly committed suicide in an Iranian prison in the last few weeks. This has led some human rights advocates to express fears that in the Islamic Republic, getting arrested can amount to a death sentence.
According to human rights organizations, three to five protesters lost their lives in Iranian prisons during the nationwide protests that took place at the end of December 2017 and in early January 2018, although Islamic Republic authorities have only confirmed two deaths — that of Sina Ghanbari in Evin Prison and Vahid Heydari in a jail in the central city of Arak.
On January 9, Amnesty International demanded an investigation into prison deaths. “The shroud of secrecy and lack of transparency over what happened to these detainees is alarming. Instead of rushing to the judgment that they committed suicide, the authorities must immediately launch an independent, impartial, and transparent investigation, including independent autopsies,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa. Iranian authorities have not responded.
On January 16, 40 members of the Iranian parliament wrote a letter to Speaker Ali Larijani and called for an independent probe into the deaths, but, as of now, no action has been taken.
On the same day, reformist parliamentarian Mahmoud Sadeghi raised the issue of prisoners being given hallucinogenic drugs. “According to a relative, one of the detainees [who] has died in prison told his family in phone calls [before his death] that prison officials were forcing him and other detainees to take pills that made them feel bad,” he tweeted.
This led to increased speculation that forced-fed hallucinogens might be behind the deaths of the prisoners. Human rights activists have yet to obtain reliable information or hard evidence to prove or disprove the claims.
But when civil and political activists or media professionals die in prison from mysterious and suspicious deaths, who ultimately benefits? Imprisoning protesters, activists and journalists has long been an effective weapon for silencing them, and the authorities continue to use it against opposition figures and critics. In fact, they use this tactic more than any other punishment — even more than the punishment of stripping them of their legal and social rights, exile or even execution. However, some argue that the widespread use of prison as an effective punishment has reached a point of diminished returns — as the death penalty for drug traffickers has done.
At least since the street protests following the disputed presidential election in 2009, prison has turned into such a unique personal and collective experience for some civil and political activists that many refer to it as the “university”. And among many members of the middle class the concept of being a political prisoner or prisoner of conscience has gained a meaning different from its negative, traditional connotations.
It now seems that the Islamic Republic has turned to “death by choice” or “accidental” murder to deal with this change in attitude toward prison. Naturally, the beneficiaries of this kind of eternal silence are those who have always wanted to silence the opposition one way or another.
For them, prison was at first an acceptable deterrence, but later they added torture, deliberate negligence of or even damage to prisoners’ health, and harassment of prisoners’ families to keep imprisonment “effective.”
It seems that the Islamic Republic has found a new lever. Now it is the specter of death that haunts Iranian prisoners, and the sense that it could happen at any moment. The victims are not murderers or criminals or drug traffickers or armed robbers but a vast group of imprisoned political, civil or media activists.
Armed with this new effective weapon, authorities use it often and systematically in the understanding that most people find the vision of death more terrifying than death itself. Perhaps the recent suicides are a warning to critics of the Islamic Republic, and to opposition groups who may no longer fear going to prison. The warning is clear: We can silence you, and “suicide” is the new method.
A citizen journalist going by the pseudonym Zohreh Khosravani contributed additional reporting.