PICTURED: Top row from left to right, Sam Rajabi, Houman Jowkar, Niloufar Bayani, Morad Tahbaz, and bottom row, from left to right Sepideh Kashani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Taher Ghadirian, and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh.
October 13th, 2019. Sources have told World at Large that Niloufar Bayani and her three colleagues at the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) who were arrested in January of 2018 by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) and charged with “spreading corruption on earth,” a capital offence, have had their death penalty charges dropped.
The international pressure to have these researchers released has grown since their arrest. Hashtag campaigns #fastforanyhopefornature and #Justiceforenvironmentalists were launched in August before one of the scientists, Niloufar Bayani, completed a successful hunger strike.
World at Large has closely followed this story since March, and the timeline of events is as followed.
9 PWHF conservationists researching and protecting the critically endangered asiatic cheetah, perhaps less than 50 of which may exist in the wilds of Iran, were arrested on suspicion of espionage.
Their charges were based on ties the scientists had to international wildlife conservation groups like the UN Development Programme, and because of their use of camera traps, a typical piece of equipment utilized for wildlife research.
According to the English human rights organization Article 19, they have reportedly been subjected to months of solitary confinement and psychological torture, including being threatened with death, threatened with injections of hallucinogenic drugs, and threatened with the arrest and harm of family members.
Pressure to see the detained scientists released ramped up after Managing Director and co-founder of PWHF, Kavous Seyed-Emami, died in prison on the 9th of February, of alleged suicide.
Yet the international scientific community, who knew him as a great scientist, a top conservationist, as well as a kind and gentle man with a deep love of natural Iran, is demanding an independent investigation because his death took place outside of CCTV cameras. At the time of writing no independent investigation has been allowed to take place.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani put together a fact-finding mission to see whether there was any basis for the charges of espionage. The Intelligence services concluded the nine scientists should be released, as there was no evidence that any espionage was committed.
The families of 8 of the detainees wrote an open letter stating that their loved ones were held in Tehran’s Evin prison without access to legal council.
Four of the biologists’ sentences were elevated from espionage to Spreading Corruption on Earth, the highest sentence in the Iranian penal code and punishable by death at the highest degree. Defence attorneys noted that the charges were elevated after prosecutors received a “letter from the army”.
1,100 biologists, scientists, and conservationists wrote a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, and Ayatollah Larijani, Head of the Judiciary, explaining how valuable the scientists were to saving the critically endangered cheetah, and that the international ties used to link the scientists to spying are a necessary part of pursuing conservation due to wildlife’s habit of crossing international borders.
The letter was signed by esteemed biologists such as Iain Douglas Hamilton and Jane Goodall.
On the 3rd of August, two of the detainees, Niloufar Bayani and Sepideh Kashani began a hunger strike which lasted several days to protest treatment within the prison. Sources close to World at Large have confirmed that through phone calls with the detained, Houman Jowkar and Taher Ghadirian were also fasting, likely in solidarity with their colleagues.
#JusticeforEnvironmentalists (in Farsi #عدالت_برای_محیط_زیستیها) and #FastForAnyHopeForNature were calls to action, where people begin to join the hunger strike in solidarity, and spread rapidly on Twitter.
“They demand that they be either released on bail until a verdict is issued, or transferred from the secluded section 2A of Evin prison, in which they are held under the custody of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to the public sector of the prison,” sources said, explaining the demands of the hunger strike.
On August 11th, the two female conservationists’ hunger strike succeeded, and they were moved from the IRG monitored prison ward to the public ward, where they began to receive phone call privileges and family visits.
Niloufar Bayani, Taher Ghadirian, Houman Jowkar, and Morad Tahbaz have all had their capital charges of spreading corruption on earth dropped.
20 months after their arrest, the biologists are still in detention, and World at Large will be constantly monitoring their progress.