Iranian regime’s prosecutors have charged four conservationists with “sowing corruption on Earth”, a crime that carries the death sentence in the Islamic Republic. The environmentalists were carrying out scientific monitoring of endangered species.
The Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation workers were arrested in January on suspicion of espionage. The Revolutionary Guards Corps accused them of using their camera traps, to spy on the country’s ballistic missile program. Camera traps were intended to monitor the rare Asiatic cheetahs and other wildlife.
The detainees are likely pawns in a power struggle between the hardline Revolutionary Guards under the influence of religious Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. In a review conducted last spring by the government determined that the spying accusation was baseless. Due to lack of evidence to support the spying charges, the Revolutionary Guards Corps were forced to change their tactics and instead charged the environmentalists with a national security charge instead.
Human rights organizations learned last week that the charges against the four—believed to be Taher Ghadirian, Houman Jowkar, Morad Tahbaz, and Niloufar Bayani—have been upgraded to a capital offence. Tara Sepehri Far, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in New York City, said that this was “a very bizarre charge to bring against environmental activists” and “totally unprecedented”.
Several of them serve on International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) panels that weigh evidence of the status of wildlife populations and recommend whether to add or remove species from IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.
IUCN Species Survival Commission Chair Jon Paul Rodríguez, a conservation biologist at the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research in Caracas, said: “IUCN is deeply alarmed by the charges. Camera traps are indispensable for tracking the status and biology of threatened species. As far as I am aware, practically the only information we have on the Asiatic cheetah comes from camera traps.”
Five other environmentalists have been arrested on similar charges. The co-founder of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, Professor Kavous Seyed-Emami, an Iranian-Canadian citizen, died under suspicious circumstances in Tehran’s Evin Prison in February. Authorities claim he committed suicide, but many believe that he died under torture.
No trial date has been set for the remaining eight detainees.