In a letter to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, 26 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have expressed their "strong concern" over the prolonged detention of eight Iranian environmentalists accused of spying.
Calling on Rouhani to ensure the release of the environmentalists, the MEPs said the activists’ closed-door trial, which began January 30, “falls seriously short of fair trial standards.”
The MEPs noted that the hardline judge presiding over the case, Abdolghassem Salavati of Branch 15 of Teheran’s Revolutionary Court, reportedly prevented a defendant from appearing in court with a lawyer of his own choosing, and later one of the defendants told the court she had been tortured in detention.
The eight are accused of spying and various national security crimes. Four of the defendants are charged with “sowing corruption on Earth,” a charge that can carry the death sentence in Iran.
Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi has claimed the activists were “seeking proximity to military sites with the cover of environmental projects and obtaining military information from them.”
Niloufar Bayani, Houman Jokar, Ms. Sepideh Kashani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, Taher Qadirian, Sam Rajabi, and Iranian-American Morad Tahbaz, are members of a local environmental group called the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, which was established by Iranian-Canadian sociology professor and well-known environmentalist Kavous Seyyed-Emami.
Emami was arrested along with the other eight environmentalists in January 2018, but died in jail a few weeks later under suspicious circumstances. Authorities at Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison maintain that the 63-year-old Emami committed suicide while in custody, an explanation his family reject.
In their letter, the MEPs called for a full investigation into Emami’s death and criticized authorities for placing a travel ban on Seyyed-Emami's wife, Iranian-Canadian Maryam Mombeini.
None of the defendants have been allowed to choose their own legal counsel. As a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iran is required to ensure that anyone facing criminal charges has access to a lawyer of their choosing.
"We understand that the Iranian judiciary has accused the activists of using environmental projects as a cover to collect classified strategic information, but a committee established under your authority has found no evidence of these allegations,” the MEPs wrote to Rouhani.
The MEPs, who belong to different political factions, including Christian Democrats, Socialists, Conservatives, Liberals, and Greens, also affirmed in the letter, “We believe that respect for international human rights standards should be at the core of EU-Iran bilateral relations, and it is cases like these that serve as a litmus test for your government’s commitment to making progress in its human rights record."
The case of the Iranian environmentalists has received some high-profile attention from other corners as well. In a February 6 tweet, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who is also known for his environmental activism, called for support for the environmentalists, asking his followers to “stand by those risking their lives to protect the future of our planet and its inhabitants.”
DiCaprio also shared a petition calling for the release of the environmentalists.
Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, which is constitutionally responsible for all espionage-related cases, has repeatedly affirmed that there is no evidence against the defendants and members of parliament have also come to their defense, but the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Judiciary insist on their guilt.
Despite the position of the Intelligence Ministry, Iran’s Prosecutor-General, mid-ranking cleric Mohammad Jafar Montazeri reiterated in November last year that the environmentalists were "agents of influence for Israel and the United States,” and referred to “documents” he says can prove that charge.
Tasnim news agency, which is linked to the IRGC, quoted Montazeri as saying that Israel and the U.S. agents infiltrate environmental protection organizations because activists have access to “sensitive and vital locations” in the country, where they place cameras under the pretense of protecting wildlife.