Iran: Environmental activists facing trial based on forced confessions

ARTICLE 19 is gravely concerned by the ongoing arbitrary detention and alleged torture of eight environmental activists in Iran, and calls for their immediate and unconditional release. The activists have been in detention for over a year after being arrested for their conservation work, and were brought to trial on 30 January 2019. They are charged with “espionage” and “spreading corruption on earth” under the Islamic Penal Code, the latter of which carries a possible death sentence, and are facing an unfair trial on the basis of a forced confession made by one of the activists, which has since been retracted.

ARTICLE 19 condemns the violation of the activists’ right to freedom of expression and information in arresting them for carrying out their environmental work, as well as the subsequent violations of their right to a fair trial and to be free from torture and other ill-treatment. We call for the immediate and unconditional release of all eight activists, and a thorough, immediate and impartial investigation into allegations of torture and other ill-treament.

The eight activists, Niloufar Bayani, Sam Radjabi, Houman Jowkar, Taher Ghadirian, Morad Tahbaz, Sepideh Kashani, Amir Hossein Khaleghi and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, all worked for the Tehran-based Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), and were arrested in January 2018 along with Kavous Seyed-Emami, the managing director of PWHF. Seyed-Emani died on 8 February 2018 while in custody in Evin prison. While the Judiciary called it a suicide, both the domestic and international community have called for an independent investigation into his death, which has never taken place.

All defendants were initially accused of ‘espionage’ and ‘temporarily detained’, but Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi announced on 24 October 2018 that charges against four of them had been changed to “spreading corruption on earth,” which is punishable by death. They have reportedly been subjected to months of solitary confinement and psychological torture, including being threatened with death, threatened with being injected with hallucinogenic drugs, and threatened with arrest and the death of family members.

On 30 January and 2 February 2019, the eight conservationists faced trial at Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court, presided by Judge Salavati, who has a history of issuing disproportionate and oppressive sentences to human rights defenders. According to the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), half of the 300-page indictment was read in these sessions, all of which was based on the confessions of one of the eight defendants, who interrupted the court multiple times to object that the confessions were made under duress, are false and that she had later retracted them. Other serious and concerning allegations have been made about the trials, including that the trials are being held behind closed doors, the defendants were not given the right to choose their lawyers, and that not all the judiciary-appointed defence lawyers were present in court.

The detention and charge of these environmental activists, simply for carrying out legitimate research work, is a violation of their right to freedom of expression and to engage in activism to protect the environment. The arrests and trials are part of a broader concerning trend of silencing those speaking out on environmental issues in the country using espionage charges. The choice to bring charges which carry the death penalty in this case is an alarming escalation of this effort to silence environmental activists and a violation of international standards.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the Iranian Judiciary to end its use of torture to extract false confessions in order to target human rights defenders and others in this way, and to end efforts to silence discussion of environmental issues in the country through criminal charges against environmental activists.

Charging environmental activists with such serious crimes, simply for carrying out field research, is an unacceptable violation of the right to freedom of expression and access to information” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19. “All eight activists should be immediately released and the preposterous charges against them dropped. The government must instead urgently open an investigation into the use of torture against them, and the death in custody of Kavous Seyed-Emami”.