President Hassan Rouhani has appointed a committee to investigate recent “regrettable incidents” at detention centers in Iran, according to an announcement on his official website on February 14.
The members of the committee are the interior, intelligence, and justice ministers, as well as the deputy president for legal affairs.
“The committee is tasked with investigating the issues and reporting back to the president about possible negligence in this regard,” the statement said.
The order comes days after a prominent Iranian-Canadian university professor and environmentalist, Kavous Seyed-Emami, allegedly killed himself while in custody.
Earlier in January, following widespread protests against Iran’s ruling system, at least two other detainees allegedly committed suicide while in custody at Evin Prison in Tehran and a police station in the city of Arak, central Iran.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), whose intelligence agents are said to be responsible for arresting Emami and several other environmental activists, claims he had relayed information on the country’s missile bases to the CIA and Israel’s Mossad.
However, espionage and counterespionage operations, according to Tehran MP and deputy parliamentary speaker Ali Motahari, are the exclusive responsibility of the Intelligence Ministry and the IRGC had no legal right to interfere in such matters.
It is not clear to what extent Rouhani's committee will be able to do a thorough investigation if IRGC intelligence refuses to fully cooperate.
Nevertheless, Tehran Prosecutor-General Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi insisted Emami and other detained environmental activists had collaborated with foreign spy agencies.
“They installed cameras in strategic locations across the country and collected information on Iran’s sensitive sites, including missile bases,” Dolatabadi said on February 13.
Isa Kalantari, head of the Environment Department in Rouhani’s administration, dismissed Dolatabadi’s comments, noting that environmental cameras cannot be used for espionage purposes.
“Environmental cameras that monitor leopards’ activity have a range of no more than 50 meters (roughly 55 yards),” Kalantari said.
Meanwhile, Emami’s suspicious death has created a new hurdle on the path to Iran-Canada rapprochement.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised during his 2015 election campaign to restore diplomatic relations with Iran, but the brutal crackdown on the recent widespread unrest prompted opposition calls for the government to reconsider, Associated Press reported.
Emami’s death has also turned into a reminder of another Iranian-Canadian citizen who died behind bars in Tehran.
Zahra (aka Ziba) Kazemi was an Iranian-Canadian freelance photojournalist who was arrested in July 2003 while taking pictures of families protesting relatives’ detention outside Evin Prison.
Kazemi was detained and later officially declared dead “after hitting her head on a sharp object and suffering a stroke.”
Her suspicious death led to a political row between Iran and Canada.