Mounting Evidence that Clears Eight Conservationists from Grave Charges, Judiciary Still Relies on Forced “Confessions”
Iran Must Guarantee Fair Trial in Upcoming Court Session on February 12
Year-long Detainment Continues while Judiciary Ignores Conclusions of Supreme National Security Council, Intelligence Ministry and Department of Environment
February 7, 2019—In light of the upcoming court session on February 12 in which eight conservationists who have been detained for over a year will have to defend themselves against grave national security charges, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) calls upon the Iranian Judiciary to ensure all safeguards necessary for a free trial will be provided.
With three major state organizations in Iran calling into question the charges of espionage against the eight conservationists, as well as credible evidence of forced confessions, CHRI calls upon the authorities to adhere to international standards of evidence and a fair trial, in which forced confessions are inadmissible.
“This case typifies the fact that hundreds of citizens in Iran are trapped in a judicial system in which there is no requirement of evidence and forced false ‘confessions’ are used to compensate for this lack of evidence,” said Hadi Ghaemi, CHRI’s executive director.
“The Judiciary is disregarding conclusions of the state’s own agencies and instead bowing to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who concocted this case, giving lie to their long-stated claim of judicial independence and the rule of law in Iran,” Ghaemi added.
Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Rejects Espionage Charge
This past week Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), the country’s highest security body, reportedly decided that the eight conservationists who have been detained for over a year were not involved in any espionage, according to a lawmaker. Yet so far, the SNSC has not commented publicly on the matter, and the eight remain behind bars.
“Based on information I have received, the Supreme National Security Council’s (SNSC) expert investigation of the accused conservationists concluded that their activities did not constitute espionage,” tweeted Mahmoud Sadeghi, a reformist member of Parliament from Tehran, on February 3, 2019.
In recent weeks Iran’s Department of the Environment (DOE) has been collecting information about the detained conservationists, including their academic background and professional activities at the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, for the SNSC’s attention, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has learned.
Based on that information, the SNSC concluded the espionage charges against them were baseless. In May 2018, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry had also concluded that the conservationists had not engaged in espionage, a view shared by Iran’s Department of Environment as well.
Houman Jowkar, Taher Ghadirian, Morad Tahbaz, Sepideh Kashani, Niloufar Bayani, Amir Hossein Khaleghi, Sam Rajabi and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh are currently on trial on national security charges. Four have been charged with “corruption on earth” (which can carry the death penalty), three with “espionage” and one with “assembly and collusion against national security.”
While the indictment was being read during the trial, Niloufar Bayani stated her so-called “confessions” were extracted under torture and she forcefully retracted these statements.
- CHRI calls on the Iranian judiciary to dismiss any “confessions” or statements obtained under duress, and to heed the conclusions of Iran’s own state agencies, which have concluded there is no evidence of espionage.
- CHRI calls on the Iranian authorities to guarantee all safeguards necessary for a fair trial, which should include an open trial and sufficient time for a full defense.
Fair Trial Concerns: Insufficient Time for Defense and Closed Proceedings
On February 12, the next session of the court will be held, in which the remainder of the indictment will be delivered. Afterwards, the defendants’ lawyers are allowed to defend their clients. However there are serious concerns that the defense will not be given enough time to thoroughly review these charges and respond fully and effectively to them. Judicial cases brought in Iran are notorious for allowing defense insufficient time to respond effectively.
In addition, the closed nature of the trial raises serious concerns. Trials are to be public under Iranian law unless a specific request has been made by the parties or if a public trial would jeopardize public security. Since details of the case have already been heavily publicized on state TV and by news agencies close to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards, any considerations that could have been used to justify the court being closed to public scrutiny have already been undermined. In addition, given credible questions regarding the nature of the so-called “confessions” being used as “evidence,” having a public trial is necessary to ensure the impartiality of the trial.
No Evidence, Forced “Confessions” Extracted Under Torture
“What do they want from the conservationists?” tweeted Sam Rajabi’s sister, Katayoun on February 2. “We have received news that Niloufar Bayani raised objections in court and said, ‘If you were threatened with a syringe shot, you would confess, too!’ Why are we silent? Let’s help them.”
In May 2018, DOE head, Vice President Isa Kalantari, referring to the fact that the Intelligence Ministry had found no evidence the detained conservationists had engaged in espionage, stated: “The government’s fact-finding committee has concluded that the detained activists should be released because there’s no evidence to prove the accusations leveled against these individuals.”
Their continued detainment has prompted an international outcry. The UN has called the charges against the conservationists “hard to fathom” and in February 2018 stated, “Nowhere in the world, including Iran, should conservation be equated to spying or regarded as a crime.”
The trial of the eight environmental conservationists, which began on January 30, 2019, is being held at Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, presided by the notoriously hardline Judge Abolqasem Salavati.
During the proceedings one of the defendants repeatedly asserted her so-called “confessions,” which had become the basis for the trial, were made under physical and mental torture and that she retracted all of them.
The accused have been repeatedly denied due process. Mohammad Hossein Aghasi, the attorney for one of the defendants, for example, stated that he was not allowed to attend his client’s trial.
Hessam Khaleghi, the brother of Amir Hossein Khaleghi, tweeted: “[These conservationists] have spent their lives saving this country’s natural environment. So please don’t keep repeating baseless accusations against them.”
Parliamentarians Question Rouhani on the Conservationists’ Cases
On February 4, Iran’s labor news agency, ILNA, reported that a group of parliamentarians had asked President Rouhani to look into the case and ensure the accused are not being denied their legal rights.
According to ILNA’s Political Correspondent, as Rouhani was about to leave the chamber he was surrounded by a group of lawmakers and they began a conversation. “The lawmakers pointed out the importance of this case in the eyes of the public and the international human rights community and asked the President to ensure these individuals can choose their own lawyers in accordance with the law… and to schedule a time for family visitation.”
Meanwhile Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani has accepted a request to meet the families of the conservationists but no date has yet been set, according to MP Mohammad Reza Tabesh.
Fars News, a mouthpiece for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) whose intelligence agents arrested the eight conservationists in late January 2018, published a long report on the start of the trial and described the defendants as individuals accused of “spying on Iran’s military installations.”
Iranians React with Outrage on Social Media
Niloufar Bayani’s leaked objections to the indictment, and the use of torture to extract her “confessions,” have been widely discussed by Iranians on social media—especially after the torture allegations revealed by labor activist Esmail Bakhshi and journalist Sepideh Qoliyan during their detentions in January 2019.
Journalist Shabnam Nezami tweeted on February 4: “The Intelligence Ministry, the Department of Environment and the President have said that the conservationists were not spies. Falsely accused, the late Kavous Seyed-Emami [one of the original nine conservationists arrested, who died in detention under highly suspicious circumstances] left this world in a mysterious death. We have to listen to Niloufar Bayani’s cries of innocence and help the eight prisoners before it’s too late.”
The political activist Pooyan Fakhraei commented: “Niloufar Bayani’s statements are shocking.…An all-out effort is needed to stop this nightmare.”
Tara Sepehrifar, researcher at Human Rights Watch, commented: “In 2017 Niloufar Bayani left her job working for the UN’s environmental program and returned to Iran to work on conservation. After a year in temporary detention, they say she stood in front of Judge Salavati and told him about how she was forced to make confessions under torture. Is anyone hearing her?”