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Iranian Environmentalists Handed Prison Terms In 'Sham' Trial Amid Deadly Protests

Iranian environmental activists (from top-left clockwise) Niloufar Bayani, Houman Jokar, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Taher Ghadirian, Morad Tahbaz, and Sepideh Kashani were jailed for six to 10 years.
Iranian environmental activists (from top-left clockwise) Niloufar Bayani, Houman Jokar, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Taher Ghadirian, Morad Tahbaz, and Sepideh Kashani were jailed for six to 10 years.

An Iranian court has sentenced six members of a local environmental group to between six and 10 years in prison in an internationally criticized espionage case, their families and activists say, amid a deadly crackdown on recent demonstrations sparked by sharp fuel-price hikes.

The conservationists were sentenced after some 22 months in custody for "contacts with the U.S. enemy state," the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) said on November 21.

"The only crimes that have been committed in relation to the conservationists are their unlawful arrest, their cruel and inhuman treatment in prolonged solitary confinement, the denial of their due-process rights, and their sham convictions and sentencing, without evidence or regard for the requirements of law," CHRI Executive Director Hadi Ghaemi said.

Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said the environmentalists could appeal the sentences handed down by the Tehran Revolutionary Court, according to the judiciary-affiliated Mizan news agency.

Those sentenced are all members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, which works to protect endangered animals and raise public awareness about the environment.

Morad Tahbaz and Niloufar Bayani received 10-year sentences, Taher Ghadirian and Houman Jokar got eight years, and Amirhossein Khaleghi and Sepideh Kashani got six years, their relatives said.

Tahbaz holds Iranian, U.S., and British citizenship.

Two other wildlife conservationists held since January 2018 have yet to be handed verdicts, the CHRI said.

Authorities accused the group of collecting classified information about Iran's strategic areas under the pretext of carrying out environmental and scientific projects.

The accused have denied the charges, and international human rights groups have joined scientists around the world in calling for their release.

Human Rights Watch has called the accusations "ridiculous," while Amnesty International said there was evidence that the conservationists were subjected to torture in order to extract forced "confessions."

The 63-year-old managing director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, Kavous Seyed Emami, was also detained but died in prison under disputed circumstances.

The judiciary said the Iranian-Canadian sociology professor committed suicide. The claim has been questioned by his family and acquaintances.

News of the cases comes as Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) praised the armed forces for taking "timely" action against "rioters" and said calm had returned after days of unrest sparked by the Iranian government's decision last week to ration gasoline purchases and cut subsidies.

The "incidents were ended in less than 24 hours and in some cities in 72 hours," a statement said, adding that the "arrest of the rioters' leaders has contributed significantly to calming the situation."

Iran is facing growing international condemnation for its crackdown on the protests, with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights citing reports suggesting that "dozens of people may have been killed and many people injured," and Amnesty International said at least 106 protesters were believed to have been killed.

Iranian officials, who have acknowledged several deaths, described Amnesty's figure as "speculative and not reliable." They called the protesters "thugs" and suggested the demonstrations were part of a "plot" by Tehran's foreign foes -- Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States.

Authorities have imposed a near-total shutdown of the Internet since November 16, making it difficult to get a clear picture of the events, with reports saying that dozens of gas stations, banks, shops, and other public property had been damaged or destroyed by protesters.

"Shutting down the Internet during protests will not make people stop demonstrating, but it will cut them off from important information that they have a right to access," the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement on November 20.

The European Union on November 21 said it expected Iranian authorities to restore communications and exercise "maximum restraint" in handling the protests, saying the rights to freedom of expression and assembly "must be guaranteed."

Protesters should "demonstrate peacefully," spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said, adding that "any violence is unacceptable."

With reporting by AP, the BBC, AFP, and RFE/RL's Radio Farda