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Top Iran Prosecutor Insists Jailed Environmentalists Are Spies

Iranian ecologists and environmental activists who have been jailed for more than a year, (from top-left clockwise): Sam Rajabi, Houman Jowkar, Niloufar Bayani, Morad Tahbaz, Morteza Arianejad, Taher Ghadirian, Amir Hossein Khaleghi, and Sepideh Kashani

As the trial gets under way for eight prominent Iranian environmentalists on charges of espionage, Iran’s prosecutor-general has said the defendants are certainly guilty.

In a March 7 media briefing, mid-ranking cleric and Prosecutor-General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri insisted, "As the Prosecutor-General, and on the bases of evidence and documents, I believe the eight are definitely spies. Now, I am waiting for the outcome of the hearings and the court's verdict."

Ms. 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 categorically reject.

Meanwhile, an unknown number of the detained environmentalists are charged with "corruption on Earth" which is punishable by death.

The Prosecutor-General's insistence on their guilt contradicts the findings of three major state agencies in Iran, including the country’s highest security body, the Ministry of Intelligence, who have stated that the accused are all innocent of the spying charges filed against them.

Furthermore, their continued detainment has prompted an international outcry. The UN has called the charges against the environmentalists “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.”

In October 2018, Human Rights Watch also called the accusations against the eight environmentalists "ridiculous."

Meanwhile, the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported March 4 the arrest of yet another environmentalist.

"Environmentalist Afshin Sheikholeslami Vatani, a U.S. permanent resident, was arrested on February 17, 2019, at his father’s home in the city of Sanandaj, the capital of Iran’s Kurdistan Province, a month after returning to the country from the United States."

Afshin Sheikholeslami Vatani belongs to Iran’s Kurdish minority.

Afshi’s sister Negin, who lives in Sweden, told CHRI “Our parents, uncle and some repairmen were inside the house when several agents came and carried out a search and took Afshin away.”

A civil engineer, Afshin Sheikholeslami Vatani, 40, had traveled to Iran several times without any problems since he immigrated to the U.S. in 2015 (he is currently a permanent resident). Prior to that, he had served one year in prison for his peaceful political activities, CHRI reported.

The U.S. government has so far not reacted to Afshin Sheikholeslami's detention.