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Conservation groups urge fair trial for jailed Iranian researchers

Reports allege that environmental researchers on trial for spying are being denied legal rights.

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A female Asiatic cheetah named 'Dalbar' walks between greenery in an enclosure at Pardisan Park in Tehran, Iran.

The Asiatic cheetah. Research studying the endangered animal were arrested on spying charges last year.Credit: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty

A controversy surrounding eight environmental researchers charged with spying in Iran is escalating.

Leading conservation groups, human-rights organizations and European politicians are urging Iranian authorities to give the jailed researchers a fair trial, after reports emerged that the defendants’ legal rights have been breached. Meanwhile, secretive trials of the scientists — who say they are innocent — have begun in Iran’s revolutionary court system, which usually deals with economic, corruption and security crimes, according to sources close to the defendants. Four of the researchers face extra charges of “sowing corruption on Earth”, which can carry the death penalty.

The sources, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, say that hearings have been held for two defendants, after an initial session in which the indictment was read to the whole group, which comprises two women and six men. The sources also say that two of the researchers are having health problems because they haven’t received proper care in prison.

The case comes amid increasing scrutiny by the Iranian government of environmental-research activities. Critics say that the government fears that other nations might be using environmental-monitoring activities for spying, and according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran, a non-governmental organization (NGO) headquartered in New York City, tens of people involved in conservation have been arrested in Iran in the past year.

“Environment was a safe space in Iran, because it’s apolitical,” says Kaveh Madani, an environmental-policy specialist at Imperial College London. But increasing interest from both the Iranian public and Western conservation organizations in the nation’s worsening environmental issues has changed that, he says.

Many conservation researchers now fear working in Iran, says Madani, who is Iranian and had been a researcher at Imperial when he was invited back to Iran in 2017 to serve as deputy head of the government’s environment department. But he resigned and left the country seven months later, after being arrested and interrogated by Iranian authorities amid the crackdown on environmental researchers.

Big-cat studies

When the eight imprisoned researchers were arrested in January 2018, they were using camera traps to study endangered wildlife, including the Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus), in national parks and other locations in Iran.

Authorities accused them of spying on sensitive infrastructure, according to press reports, but the researchers maintain their innocence. Iran’s environment ministry had authorized their research activities, say the anonymous sources.

Trials began even though several Iranian government agencies, including a special committee appointed by President Hassan Rouhani, concluded in May 2018 that there is no evidence supporting the charges. All of the researchers — named as Niloufar Bayani, Taher Ghadirian, Amir Hossein Khaleghi, Houman Jowkar, Sepideh Kashani, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, Sam Rajabi and Morad Tahbaz — worked with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, a respected NGO in Tehran.

The case has prompted an outcry from the international community. Reports that some “detainees may not have adequate access to legal counsel and representation is deeply troubling”, the United Nations Environment Programme said in a statement on 5 March. “We urge the Iranian authorities to ensure that [the researchers] are guaranteed a fair, transparent and independent trial,” it says.

Human-rights group Amnesty International released a similar statement on the same day. And a February letter to Iran’s president, 26 members of the European Parliament voiced concerns that the proceedings fall seriously short of fair-trial standards. Open letters signed by hundreds of conservationists were published shortly after the arrests last year.

Statements from wildlife charity WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society both say that the researchers are highly regarded and that camera traps are commonly used by field conservationists to monitor species in the wild. “We stand by the innocence of these men and women. We urge the Iranian authorities to ensure that they receive a fair and transparent trial that takes into account the practical realities of their work,” wrote the WWF.

Call for justice

The anonymous sources allege that during the defendants’ year-long detention, the researchers’ rights have been breached. The sources say that the researchers were forced to change the lawyers they originally appointed, and that one of the researchers, Niloufar Bayani, was barred from attending trial hearings after she said in February in front of the revolutionary court’s judge that a false confession had been extorted from her in prison.

A ninth researcher, Kavous Seyed-Emami, 64, was arrested along with the eight experts but died in jail about a month later in unclear circumstances. Seyed-Emami’s family told Nature that his autopsy results haven’t been released to them and that Iranian authorities, without giving a reason, had banned his wife from travelling outside the country.

Nasser Karami, an Iranian climatologist at the University of Bergen in Norway, agrees with the international conservation community that the accused are not environmental activists, but reputable experts in wildlife. Karami fled Iran in 2012 after being fired from his academic positions for publishing criticisms about the government’s role in conservation.

Karami and Madani say that environmental problems have increased and the public has become unhappy about the government’s handling of the issues. Mounting criticisms of the authorities have made it a security issue for the government, says Madani. He adds that the interest of Western politicians and NGOs in conservation efforts in Iran has triggered fears among Iranian intelligence forces that these activities might be used to infiltrate Iran and jeopardize national security. Madani says that this explains why environmental researchers, including him, are increasingly being targeted by intelligence forces and arrested.

“The ongoing imprisonment of the environmentalists and reports of serious due-process violations send a chilling message to scholars, activists, journalists and others in Iran,” says Daniel Munier, a senior programme officer at Scholars at Risk, an NGO devoted to academic freedom based in New York City.

Nature 568, 17-18 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01001-3

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