The sentences were handed down in secret Wednesday and without the presence of defense lawyers, according to a Human Rights Watch researcher and a former environmental official. The verdicts were announced to the prisoners, who relayed the information to family members, relatives said.
The verdicts came as Iran grappled with a wave of socioeconomic unrest and a government-ordered Internet blackout. More than 100 protesters may have been killed since anti-government demonstrations began Friday, Amnesty International said.
On Wednesday, the Tehran Revolutionary Court condemned six of the environmentalists to between six and 10 years in prison, while the two other defendants — Sam Rajabi and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh — had yet to be sentenced.
“We still haven’t seen any evidence that these people did anything wrong,” said Tara Sepehri Far, a Middle East researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “The court sentenced these people in the most nontransparent and unfair way, ignoring serious allegations of abuse in detention.”
The trial was marred by abuse and accusations of torture, according to rights groups. A ninth detained researcher, Kavous Seyed-Emami, died in custody shortly after his arrest. Prison authorities said he committed suicide — a charge his family rejects.
The eight defendants all belonged to the nonprofit Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, which used wildlife camera traps to track the Asiatic cheetah in remote corners of Iran’s central plateau. The basic cameras, used by wildlife researchers worldwide, snap short-range images when triggered by a mammal’s movement near a game trail or watering hole.
They were key, however, to wildlife protection efforts in Iran, scientists said. In addition to the Asiatic cheetah, Iran is home to rare species such as Persian leopards and Baluchistan bears. It also suffers from widespread environmental degradation, including desertification, air pollution and diversity loss.
Iranian authorities accused the conservationists of using the U.S.-manufactured camera models to collect classified military information. The Revolutionary Guard, a powerful security branch, has stepped up its persecution of scientific and scholarly researchers in Iran, activists and analyst say.
Iran’s security establishment has long been suspicious of people and institutions that maintain contact with foreign organizations. Researchers, academics, business executives and dual nationals have all been recently targeted for arrest.
The environmentalists — whose expertise ranged from wildlife biology to ecology to eco-tourism — spent nearly two years in detention as they awaited a verdict. Two government agencies chaired by President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, had exonerated the researchers earlier this year.
The court, Far said, dropped charges of “spreading corruption on earth” for several defendants. It’s a crime that carries the death penalty under Iran’s penal code. Another charge — of collaborating with Israel — also was removed from the docket. One defendant, U.S.-educated biologist Niloufar Bayani, was accused of receiving illicit income from the United Nations and ordered to return the money. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
According to former colleagues, the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation had cooperated for years with Iran’s Department of Environment and was careful to secure the necessary permits to carry out conservation work. Its project to track the Asiatic cheetah, whose population has dwindled to fewer than 50, was one of the most ambitious in Iran’s history, scientists said.
“I tend to believe that the Iranian conservationists are victims of the domestic and international power games between the [Revolutionary Guard] and its opponents,” said Kaveh Madani, a former deputy director of the Department of Environment.
Madani said he was forced to flee Iran after the Guard detained and interrogated him last year, around the same time that the environmentalists were arrested.
“No one knows what they have done wrong as that was never properly explained to the public,” he said. “Despite all of the smear campaigns against them, the Iranian environmental community still praises them for their love and dedication to nature.”