January 30, 2019 – In their first trial session since being detained in Iran one year ago, eight conservationists learned today that the first half of their indictment is based on one detainee’s retracted forced “confessions.”
Part of the 300-page indictment was read today to defendants Houman Jowkar, Taher Ghadirian, Morad Tahbaz, Sepideh Kashani, Niloufar Bayani, Amir Hossein Khaleghi, Sam Rajabi and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh in their closed-door trial on January 30, 2019, at Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court presided by Judge Abolqasem Salavati.
“In the first court session of the eight environmental conservationists, half of the indictment, which was more than 300 pages, was read and most of it was based on false ‘confessions’ made by one of the defendants,” a source with knowledge of the court session told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
“During the reading of the indictment… the defendant interrupted several times and objected that her ‘confessions’ had become the basis for the trial,” added the source who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“She said the ‘confessions’ had been made under physical and mental torture and intense psychological pressure and that she had retracted all of them after the first round of investigations,” said the source.
“When the defendant persisted, the judge warned her to stop her objections but after she continued to object she was allowed to talk for a few minutes about the coerced nature of the confessions and the surrounding circumstances,” added the source.
The source continued: “In the first 150 pages of the indictment, no witnesses or evidence were presented by the judicial authorities to prove their case. So far it seems that the court is entirely relying on false confessions, which these individuals have repeatedly retracted because of the circumstances in which they were extracted.”
Held Incommunicado, Denied Due Process
Until today, the conservationists’ cases had been shrouded in secrecy other than occasional accusations or comments by judicial officials published by state media outlets.
An informed source that spoke with CHRI on January 24 stated that all of the detainees had been subjected to prolonged periods of solitary confinement and only sporadically granted severely limited access to counsel or phone calls with family members.
According to the judiciary’s news site, the defendants’ court appointed lawyers were present at their first trial session on January 30. But attorney Mohammad Hossein Aghasi told the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) that he had not been invited to the trial.
For its part, IRNA reported that there were three lawyers present at the trial and referred to them as “Reza Jafari, Beigi and Hosseini.” The report added that all of the lawyers had been approved by Judiciary Chief Sadegh Larijani.
It is unknown how much time the court-appointed lawyers had to study the indictment and prepare a defense.
“The parents of some of the defendants went to the courthouse today but they were not allowed inside to see their children,” Lili Houshmand Afshar, the mother of defendant Sam Rajabi, told CHRI on January 30. “The indictment is 300 pages. They read 150 pages of it today and the next sessions will be held on February 2nd and third.”
“It has been a year since they detained a bunch of young people and wasted their lives,” she said, adding that her son’s lawyer, Mohammad Hossein Aghasi, was not allowed to see the indictment or attend the trial.
Rajabi was initially accused of “colluding in acts of espionage” but he is currently being tried on the charges of “contacts with enemy states [the US]” and “assembly and collusion against national security.”
In reporting on the trial, Mizan, the judiciary’s official news agency, and the Fars News Agency, which maintains close ties with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), referred to the defendants as “individuals accused of spying on the country’s military installations.”
According to IRNA, four of the eight conservationists have been charged with “corruption of earth,” three of them with “espionage” and one of them with “assembly and collusion against national security.”
Previously, all of them had been accused of “espionage” but on October 24, 2018, Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi said the charges against four of them had been changed to “corruption of earth,” which could carry the death penalty.
Indictment Based on Forced Confessions
Agents of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization arrested nine conservationists working for the Tehran-based Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), which had been licensed to operate in Iran by the government, between January 24 and 25, 2018.
The managing director of the PWHF, Kavous Seyed-Emami, died under suspicious circumstances while held for interrogations in Tehran’s Evin Prison.
The remaining eight PWHF staff members have been held in Evin Prison’s Ward 2-A under the control of the IRGC mostly incommunicado and with extremely limited access to counsel for the past 12 months.
On January 24, CHRI reported that some of the conservationists had been forced to make false confessions under the threat of death.
A source with detailed knowledge of the cases told CHRI at the time that some of the conservationists “were subjected to months of solitary confinement and psychological torture, threatened with death, threatened with being injected with hallucinogenic drugs, threatened with arrest and the death of family members.”
“Some of the detainees were also physically beaten up… all to force them to give false confessions against themselves,” added the source who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals by Iranian security forces.
As in the case of Seyed-Emami, who died in state custody, Iranian state-funded TV has repeatedly run sensationalist news reports and comments by hardline judicial officials all aimed at smearing the detainees, who have been denied the right to respond or speak freely to defend themselves.
Iran’s State Prisons Organization and judiciary to which it reports are responsible for the health and well-being of detainees but Iran has held no one accountable for Seyed-Emami’s death, focusing instead on prosecuting his colleagues.
International Calls for Iran to Release Conservationists
The UN has called the charges against the conservationists “hard to fathom.”
“Nowhere in the world, including Iran, should conservation be equated to spying or regarded as a crime,” said UN human rights experts in February 2018. “Detention of human rights defenders for their work is arbitrary in nature.”
CHRI calls on the Iranian judiciary to dismiss any “confessions” or statements obtained under duress and adds its voice to the growing chorus of calls from inside and outside Iran for the conservationists to be granted a fair trial and released immediately.
“Instead of holding anyone accountable for Seyed-Emami’s death, Iran has subjected his colleagues to 12 months of abuse while violating their right to counsel,” said CHRI’s Executive Director Hadi Ghaemi in a press release published January 24.
“Yet emerging details tell a very different story of a group of conservationists being smeared and pressured to make false statements against themselves while being denied access to counsel,” he added.
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