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Ottawa urged to ask Iran for autopsy on Canadian academic who died in prison

The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran say it’s up to Canada to push Tehran to conduct an autopsy on Iranian-Canadian environmental researcher Kavous Seyed-Emami, who died in a Tehran prison.

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Canada is facing pressure to condemn Iran and demand an investigation after an Iranian-Canadian professor, who was a leading conservationist in the country, died in a Tehran prison some two weeks after his arrest on allegations of spying.

Kavous Seyed-Emami, a 64-year-old academic who conducted environmental research as managing director of the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation and taught sociology at Imam Sadegh University in Tehran, died under suspicious circumstances.

His family was told on Friday by Iranian authorities that he died by suicide, a claim the family rejects. It is not clear when he died.

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Prof. Seyed-Emami's family request for an autopsy has been denied, according to a source with ties to his family.

A leading human-rights organization says it is now up to Canada to demand an independent autopsy before Prof. Seyed-Emami's body is buried.

"If we don't hear much international protest in the next 48 hours, the Iranian government's going to literally get away with murder," Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, said in an interview on Sunday. He said Canada has the ability to lead an international campaign to pressure Iran, possibly through the United Nations.

"[Canadian elected officials] have to take the lead internationally, demanding accountability and an investigation," he said. "They have a lot of legitimacy [with] all the other governments to be leading the international efforts and I hope they step up to the plate and do that."

Canada's influence in Iran is limited following the closing of its embassy in Tehran in 2012, the same year that Canada listed Iran as a state supporter of terrorism. Canadian diplomats in Turkey have assumed the lead role for gathering information related to Prof. Seyed-Emami's death.

Another challenge for Canada is that Iran does not recognize dual nationals. This was a persistent problem for Canada in 2003, when Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was arrested, tortured and died in an Iranian prison.

Roland Paris, a former foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who is now Research Chair in International Security and Governance at the University of Ottawa, said Canada should be asking for answers from Iran in this case.

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"I think it would be reasonable for Canada to call on the Iranian authorities to explain the circumstances of this alleged suicide, because there is a suspicious pattern of alleged suicides in Iranian prisons," he said.

In the run-up to the 2015 federal election, the Liberals promised to reopen the Canadian embassy in Tehran if elected. That has not materialized, though Canadian diplomats have visited the country over the past year.

Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi was quoted on Sunday by the semi-official ILNA news agency stating that Prof. Seyed-Emami had died. The prosecutor had previously said he had been detained in connection to an alleged espionage ring related to scientific and environmental projects that collected information on "strategic areas."

"He knew there were a lot of confessions against him and he also confessed himself," Mr. Dolatabadi was quoted as saying. "Unfortunately, he committed suicide in prison."

Several other people who worked with Prof. Seyed-Emami at the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation have also been detained, including Iranian-American dual national Morad Tahbaz.

The professor's son, musician Ramin Seyed-Emami who performs under the stage name King Raam, wrote on Instagram that his father had died following his arrest on Jan. 24.

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"They say he committed suicide. I still can't believe this," he wrote.

The Canadian government said it was aware of reports about Prof. Seyed-Emami. "Canadian consular officials in Ankara are working to gather additional information and are providing assistance to the family of the Canadian citizen," Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Natasha Nystrom said in a statement.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O'Toole said his party is very concerned about the professor's death and called on the Canadian government to be more forceful in its response.

"The government should be pushing for an inquiry into the detention and should demand to immediately participate in any autopsy and investigation of the death," he said.

Prof. Seyed-Emami, who received his degrees from U.S. universities, lived in Vancouver for several years. He was married and had two sons.

He spent last fall as a visiting professor at the University of Lethbridge.

"It's just a tragedy all around," said Trevor Harrison, a sociology professor who helped arrange Prof. Seyed-Emami's semester in Alberta. "He was a really quality person and a pretty fine intellectual so it's a loss to Iran and a loss to the world at large."

Prof. Harrison said he finds it hard to imagine that Prof. Seyed-Emami was working as a spy. "Intellectuals are often viewed quite suspiciously. Espionage, no, I doubt it. I highly doubt it. This is a person who was a well-respected academic."

After anti-government protests swept through Iran last month, Prof. Harrison sent Prof. Seyed-Emami an e-mail subtly asking if he was in any danger. In a reply on Jan. 9, he wrote: "Hi Trevor. I am very well. Thank you for your concern. There is always some excitement going on in this country."

That e-mail, sent two weeks before Prof. Seyed-Emami was detained, was the last Prof. Harrison heard from him. "His reading of it may have been quite fine at the time, but things obviously moved really rapidly."

With a report from Associated Press

Editor’s Note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly included a reference to a spokesperson for the Prime Minister who said the office could not confirm whether Mr. Trudeau is planning to meet with the family. That reference was intended for a story on Colten Boushie’s family. This version has been corrected.
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