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Wildlife conservationists in Iran who have been accused of espionage after using cameras to track endangered species could face the death penalty or more than a decade in prison, said Amnesty International, ahead of a verdict in their case in the coming days.

The eight scientists, who work with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, were arrested at the end of January 2018. They had been conducting research into Iran’s endangered animals, including the Asiatic cheetah and Persian leopard. There is evidence that they were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment including through prolonged solitary confinement in order to extract forced “confessions”.

“Protecting endangered wildlife is not a crime. These conservationists are scientists who were carrying out legitimate research. It is absurd that they have been prosecuted without any evidence and are being treated as criminals,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director at Amnesty International.

“Iran’s authorities should release them immediately and unconditionally and drop the outrageous espionage-related charges against them.”

The authorities have accused the conservationists of using scientific and environmental projects, such as tracking the Asiatic cheetah with cameras, as a cover to collect classified military information. The use of cameras is a standard tool used by conservationists to monitor rare and endangered species.

The eight conservationists are among nine scientists who were arrested by the Revolutionary Guards on January 24 and 25, 2018. One of them, Kavous Seyed-Emami, a Canadian-Iranian scientist and academic, died under suspicious circumstances in Evin prison two weeks after his arrest. The authorities claimed that he had committed suicide and refused to release his body unless his family agreed to an immediate burial without an independent autopsy. Amnesty International has previously called on the Iranian authorities to conduct an impartial investigation into his death.

In October 2018, the conservationists were formally charged. Four of them, Niloufar Bayani, Houman Jowkar, Morad Tahbaz and Taher Ghadirian, were charged with “corruption on earth” (efsad f’il arz) and could be sentenced to death.

Three others, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Sepideh Kashani and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, were charged with espionage and if convicted could face up to 10 years in prison. One other, Sam Rajabi, was charged with “co-operating with hostile states against the Islamic Republic” and “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security”. He could face up to 11 years in prison.

“The charges against these scientists are utterly baseless and stem solely from their peaceful conservation activities. If they are convicted it would be an outrageous mockery of justice and a devastating blow for Iran’s scientific community,” said Philip Luther.

“The fact that Iran’s authorities are harassing and intimidating wildlife conservationists with fabricated charges is another chilling example of how peaceful activities are considered ‘criminal’ by the Iranian authorities. The international community must speak out to call for these scientists’ immediate release.”

Evidence of torture and unfair trial

The eight scientists’ closed trial before Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran began on January 30, 2019 and was grossly unfair. Following their arrests, the conservationists were held incommunicado in Section 2-A of Evin prison, under the control of the Revolutionary Guards, without access to a lawyer and with very limited family contact.

According to reliable sources, during one family prison visit, some of the conservationists displayed signs of physical torture, with broken teeth and bruising on their bodies.

According to reliable sources, it appears that the court has relied almost entirely on “confessions” allegedly made under torture by the defendants, and later retracted, as the main evidence against them.

Niloufar Bayani told the court that she only made a “confession” after she was “broken” through physical and psychological torture and that she later retracted her “confession”. She said interrogators threatened to beat her, inject her with hallucinogenic drugs, pull out her fingernails and arrest her parents; they also showed her a piece of paper saying it was her death sentence and pictures of the dead body of Kavous Seyed-Emami, implying that she would meet a similar fate.

During one of the trial sessions, the judge told her to leave the courtroom for being “too disruptive” after she repeatedly objected to the fact that her retracted forced “confessions” were being used against her and the other conservationists. Consequently, she was not allowed to appear in court for the final three trial sessions.

Amnesty International is unaware of any investigation carried out into the allegations of torture and other ill-treatment.

“These shocking allegations of torture and other ill-treatment must be investigated immediately. It is appalling that the conservationists have been forced to face a deeply flawed trial on bogus charges,” said Philip Luther.

The conservationists have been denied access to a lawyer of their choosing throughout their entire detention and trial. Even in court, they were not allowed to speak with their lawyers. Sam Rajabi’s repeated requests to be represented by his own independently chosen lawyer were rejected by the judge, leaving him without legal representation in court.

In May 2018, a governmental committee consisting of the ministers of intelligence, interior and justice and the president’s legal deputy looked into detention of the conservationists and concluded that there was no evidence to suggest they were spies.  A number of senior officials in the Iranian government, including from the department of the environment, have called for the scientists’ release citing a lack of evidence against them.