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Opinion Without intervention, Iran will effectively make environmentalism a crime

Dr. Ladan Boroumand is the founder and research director of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation for Human Rights in Iran and the Omid Memorial Human Rights Library, and a Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. Irwin Cotler is an international human rights lawyer, former minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada, and longtime parliamentarian who currently chairs the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.

A court in Tehran will soon decide whether trying to protect the environment is a capital offence in Iran.

Eight members of Iran’s most prominent environmental organization, the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), are being tried for simply conducting surveys of the endangered Asiatic cheetah. Four face the death penalty, including a British-Iranian-American citizen, while the rest face more than a decade in prison.

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And it’s a trial that symbolizes a broader assault on environmentalism in Iran.

Indeed, the authorities arrested the conservationists precisely when the country needed them the most. Iran’s environment is reaching a crisis point; in fact, the arrests occurred during the country’s worst drought in modern times. Yet, around the same time, authorities went so far as to detain the deputy head of Iran’s Environment Department, also a water conservation expert, for 72 hours.

Tehran’s prosecutor falsely accused the conservationists of spying and “collecting classified information … under the guise of carrying out scientific and environmental projects.” He later embellished his conspiracy by alleging ties to the CIA and Mossad.

His accusations proved to be baseless. Countless Iranian government bodies and authorities themselves have even attested as such. A fact-finding committee, which included President Hassan Rouhani’s legal deputy, three ministries and the environmental department, concluded that the accusations are groundless and the conservationists should be released. Iran’s highest security body, headed by Mr. Rouhani, later determined that the allegations were false. Even the Intelligence Ministry, generally an instrument of Iran’s repressive apparatus, announced unequivocally that there was no proof of espionage based on “indisputable evidence and documents.” Indeed, all of PWHF’s projects were preapproved by the relevant authorities.

In addition to these findings, more than a thousand civil society leaders sent a letter to the judiciary chief asserting that the conservationists are renowned for their wildlife protection and, indeed, innocent. Even the lawyers appointed by the court from the restricted preapproved list of 20 lawyers (out of the over 20,000 members of Tehran’s Bar association) said that the eight are innocent after reviewing the case.

While the conservationists have been deprived of any semblance of due process, authorities reportedly manufactured cases solely based on forced confessions made under physical and psychological torture. The conservationists were held in pretrial detention for a year without access to counsel of their choosing and remained uninformed of charges for at least nine months. They were subjected to months of solitary confinement and physical beatings, as evidenced by broken teeth and bruising on their bodies. They were also threatened with death, the arrest and death of family members, extraction of their fingernails, and forceful injections of hallucinogens known as “truth serum.”

The cases are being heard by Judge Abolghasem Salavati, who has become notorious among human-rights organizations for overseeing trials that last mere minutes and handing down draconian sentences based on forced confessions. The defendants’ family members and lawyers, meanwhile, have been barred from the courtroom and from speaking to them during the trial.

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Iranian lawmakers recently urged Mr. Rouhani to request that the defendants be guaranteed their due-process rights, noting the importance of the case before the public and the international community. The request followed a year of calls for their release by Iranian civil society and political leaders alike, including Mr. Rouhani himself.

Time is running out, as the conservationists are expecting a verdict any day now.

Considering the closed and rushed nature of the proceedings – and the torture in detention of the conservationists – it is imperative that we sound the alarm and shine a protective spotlight on their just case and cause.

The environmental community, including organizations within PWHF’s network, should intensify its advocacy on their behalf. And the United Nations can take the lead in this regard since PWHF has extensively co-operated with the UN and is a beneficiary of its Small Grants program. Additionally, the EU can leverage its €50-million support package to Iran, including a large portion for environmental challenges, to ensure that environmental work is not criminalized. Canada has a role to play, too; it can take concrete action by invoking the recently passed Magnitsky Act and implement targeted sanctions – in the form of travel bans and asset freezes – against the top human-rights violators in Iran, including Mr. Salavati.

If the conservationists were willing to put their lives on the line to preserve the future of species like the cheetah and, more broadly, the health of our planet, the least we can do is to be equally invested in theirs.

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