Cheetah researchers accused of spying sentenced in Iran

Scientists and conservationists condemned the verdict, warning about the dangers of mixing politics and conservation.

A court in Tehran on Wednesday has handed down a guilty verdict for six cheetah researchers accused of spying, with sentences ranging from six to ten years.

The researchers all work for the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), a Tehran-based nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to saving the Asiatic cheetah and other species. They have spent almost two years in jail since their arrest in early 2018. The intelligence branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps accused them of spying on Iran for enemy countries. (Read more about their arrest and imprisonment.)

PWHF founder Morad Tahbaz (who holds both U.S. and Iranian citizenship) and program manager Niloufar Bayani both received 10-year sentences, while Houman Jowkar and Taher Ghadirian were sentenced to eight years each, and Sepideh Kashani and Amirhossein Khaleghi Hamidi sentenced to six. Abdolreza Kouhpayeh and Sam Radjabi were sentenced three days later, to four and six years respectively.

The verdicts were reportedly presented to the defendants without their lawyers present, according to a journalist with Iran International, a UK-based Persian-language television channel. Iranian state media had not confirmed the sentences at the time of publication, but a defendant's former lawyer confirmed the sentences on Iran International.

“It’s unfortunate that my friends, who led their lives in service of the environment and wildlife conservation, had any charges made against them to begin with, but even more surprising that they have received an exaggerated sentenced despite the fact that not a single shred of evidence...has been produced,” said Mehran Seyed-Emami in an email. He is the son of PWHF’s managing director Kavous Seyed-Emami, a dual Iranian-Canadian citizen who died in custody in Evin Prison in 2018. Despite his family’s calls for an independent investigation, one has not been permitted.

Four of the researchers initially faced charges of “sowing corruption on Earth,” which carried a possible death penalty. Those charges were dropped in mid-October for unknown reasons. Few details have emerged from the closed court hearings, but Niloufar Bayani’s reportedly defiant testimony, which alleged psychological, physical, and pharmaceutical torture in detention, according to The Center for Human Rights in Iran, casts further doubt on the integrity of the judicial process and raised concerns of forced confessions.

Several inquiries, including by government’s intelligence ministry (which is separate from the Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence branch), the Supreme National Security Council, and Department of the Environment, with which PWHF worked closely, failed to turn up any evidence suggesting the researchers were involved with spying, Seyed-Emami said.

The verdicts come as protests triggered by rising fuel costs roil Iran, with the country in the grips of a comprehensive internet shutdown.

Researchers and conservationists who worked with the eight reject the allegations against their colleagues and say the organization’s upstanding conservation work was jeopardised by a donor with a political agenda. The verdicts are sure to draw further condemnation by scientific, conservation, and human rights groups, which have noted a broader crackdown on environmental activists in Iran. Amnesty International counted 63 arrests in 2018, based on media reports.

When conservation and politics clash

The case has stirred controversy within the big cat community.

PWHF occasionally worked with the New York-based Panthera, one of the most prominent big cat conservation organizations in the world. On several instances, Panthera provided technical assistance and sent experts to Iran as part of the Conservation of Asiatic Cheetah and Its Habitat Project (CACP), funded by the United Nations and Iran’s Department of the Environment.

But in October 2017, PWHF severed ties with Panthera over anti-Iran comments made by its billionaire founder Thomas Kaplan. Kaplan helps fund the lobby group United Against Nuclear Iran, which argues for sanctions and regime change, and pushed heavily for the U.S. to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. The organization counts among its members a number of senior intelligence and defence figures, including the former heads of Mossad and the CIA—agencies the researchers would ultimately be accused of working for.

A letter seen by National Geographic from PWHF to Panthera suggests the Iranian researchers were worried that being associated with an organization linked to someone publicly criticizing Iran could be problematic for them.

Preeminent biologist, conservationist, and author George Schaller wrote in an open letter that he strongly condemns the fact that Kaplan “[let] politics intrude into conservation,” and confirmed he had severed all ties with Panthera. (He was previously vice president and chair of the Cat Advisory Council).

Panthera and Thomas Kaplan have not responded to requests for comment, but when he was on The David Rubenstein Show earlier this year, Kaplan explained that wildlife conservation is a passion that dates back to childhood.

“I had a dream that if I was going to go into business, one day I would be able to pivot back to this first great love and to enable the great wildlife conservationists who did have those aptitudes, so that they would be able to save the species that we love,” he said.

Other notable conservationists have spoken out too, including Jane Goodall, who recorded a video appealing to Iran’s leaders for clemency, quoting 13th-century Persian poet Rumi: “In this earth, in this immaculate field, we shall not plant any seeds except of compassion, except of love.”

A former deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment, Kaveh Madani, who went into self-imposed exile in the U.S. after hardliners accused him of being a foreign saboteur, wrote in a blog post prior to the verdicts’ announcement that “power games of radicals for selfish ends are jeopardizing the sincere efforts of Iran’s environmental community.”

‘Any hope for nature’

Saving endangered species requires international cooperation, and scientists are warning about the dangers of letting politics get in the way.

It “could easily have been one of us,” said ecologist and National Geographic explorer Rodrigo Medellín at a scientific meeting in Bonn last week.

“The protection of threatened biodiversity...should, and must, transcend politics,” wrote Sarah Durant, cheetah researcher and professor of conservation science at the Zoological Society of London, in an email before the sentencing. She added that when the international community is considering sanctions against a particular country, access to international support and expertise for the purpose of conservation should be exempt from sanctions.

“The conservationists currently imprisoned are some of the leading wildlife conservationists in Iran,” Durant said. “Before their arrest, their commitment to wildlife conservation had been making a real difference to Asiatic cheetah conservation.”

Extinction of the Asiatic cheetah is imminent without concerted, immediate conservation, she said. The species once had a home range that spanned from the Red Sea to eastern India. Today there are believed to be only 50 cats left, all in Iran. Conservationists warn that failure to act will see it go the way of the Persian lion and the Caspian tiger.

“Their imprisonment has seriously hampered the conservation of Asiatic cheetah,” Durant said.

Former Panthera employee and National Geographic explorer Tanya Rosen, who works on big cat conservation in central Asia, had been working with the PWHF to organize a cheetah summit in Iran prior to their arrests, which she describes as “a last-ditch effort to generate funding to save the species”.

When her colleagues were arrested, she and others sought to raise awareness of the case using the hashtag #AnyHopeForNature, a reference to Amirhossein Khaleghi Hamidi’s Instagram handle. “I started seeing the future of Asiatic cheetahs linked to those of our friends in jail,” she says. “There is hope for the Asiatic cheetah only if there is hope for our friends to be free.”

Editor's note: The first sentence of this story misstated the number of researchers who received sentences on November 20. Six have been found guilty, and two were awaiting sentences. This story was updated on November 24 with the sentences for the other two researchers.

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