Appeals Court Upheld Prison Sentences Against Conservationists on Baseless Charges and Coerced “Confessions”
February 20, 2020 – A female former UN Environment consultant’s complaints of physical and psychological torture at the hands of her male interrogators were ignored by Iranian judicial officials, and forced “confessions” obtained as a result of torture were used to imprison her and seven fellow wildlife conservationists, according to her newly published letters from Tehran’s Evin Prison.
In one of conservation scientist Niloufar Bayani’s letters to then-Judiciary Chief Sadegh Larijani, dated January 24, 2019, and excerpted online by BBC Persian on February 18, 2020, Bayani described being forced to endure “interrogations lasting 9-12 hours day and night” while held for eight months in “solitary confinement”:
“I was interrogated blindfolded while standing, spinning or sit-and-standing… threatened with the arrest and torture of my 70-year-old mother and father… threatened with physical torture by being shown images and descriptions of torture devices…heard hours of detailed descriptions about the suffering and pain caused by torture.”
“For the past two years we’ve been documenting egregious rights abuses in the cases of Bayani and her imprisoned colleagues while sadistic intelligence agents and judicial officials have been manufacturing a case against them,” said the communications director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) Jasmin Ramsey.
“Instead of halting the horrendous mistreatment of these peaceful wildlife conservationists, Iran’s then-Judiciary Chief Sadegh Larijani looked on while they were sentenced to prison without due process,” Ramsey added. “Newly appointed Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi should release them immediately and allow an independent investigation into Bayani’s complaints.”
Bayani also described being repeatedly sexually harassed.
“I was increasingly terrified that if I didn’t write whatever [my interrogator] wanted, he would violently sexually assault me,” wrote Bayani, 32, in one of the excerpted letters that was translated into English by CHRI.
“Because of his inexplicable sudden appearances and disgusting behavior in various places like dark passages and in the detention yard, I didn’t feel safe anywhere. Intolerable anxiety never ceased,” she said.
“Every time I… sought help from the authorities, the pressures, threats and acts of torture increased,” added Bayani, who worked as a consultant for the UN Environment Program between 2012-17.
In her letter to the judiciary chief, Bayani—who is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence—had requested that the court release audio and video recordings of her interrogations as well as her medical files to prove her allegations.
On February 19, the lawyer of Bayani’s colleague Sepideh Kashani told the Persian-language Ensaf News that Kashani had presented the court with an “affidavit” and “written statements” detailing “similar” experiences that “totally undermined the foundations of the investigations against her.”
Bayani, an Iranian citizen, received her master’s degree in conservation biology from Columbia University in 2012 before working for the UNEP in Geneva. In 2017, she returned to Iran to work for the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), a non-profit organization that was operating in Tehran with the permission of the Iranian government.
The Iranian judiciary’s imprisonment of Bayani and eight of her PHWF colleagues (former PWHF Managing Director Kavous Seyed-Emami died in January 2018 while held for interrogations in Evin Prison) has been internationally condemned by environmental and human rights-focused organizations including the UN and renowned primatologist Jane Goodall among 370 distinguished conservationists and academics.
On February 19, UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen tweeted that she was “disheartened and disappointed” by the appeals court’s verdict and called for “clemency.”
The eight conservationists have been held in Tehran’s Evin Prison since January 2018 when they were first arrested by agents of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ intelligence organization. The IRGC continued building a case against them on fabricated “espionage” charges after three major state agencies including the Intelligence Ministry and Supreme National Security Council said the charges were baseless.
A source with detailed knowledge of the conservationists’ cases told CHRI that the defendants and their lawyers have yet to be officially notified of the Appeals Court’s verdict which was announced by Judiciary Spokesman Gholam-Hossein Esmaili at a press conference in Tehran on February 18, 2020.
Excerpts from BBC Persian Article on Bayani’s Letters
The following paragraphs from the BBC Persian article that excerpted Bayani’s letters were translated into English
In her description written in early February 2020, the conservationist said that the agents forced her to “mimic sounds of wild animals” and threatened to inject her with “crippling ampoules and air ampoules.” Bayani said interrogators showed her a photo of [PWHF colleague and Iranian Canadian citizen] Kavous Seyed Emami’s corpse and warned: “That’s going to be your fate and the fate of all of your colleagues and family members unless you write whatever we want.”
[Note by CHRI: Former PWHF Managing Director Kavous Seyed-Emami died while held for interrogations in Tehran’s Evin Prison less than two weeks after he was arrested by IRGC agents.]
Bayani also wrote a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei on February 11, 2019, describing how she was treated by IRGC interrogators. She said seven armed men took her to a villa in Lavasan, north Tehran, and forced her to “watch them engage in immoral and un-Islamic behavior in a private swimming pool.”
In another letter to the head of IRGC’s Ward 2-A in Evin Prison, on January 16, 2019, Bayani wrote that “during long interrogations” agents “repeatedly made the most filthy sexual insults… in detailed, disgusting, imaginary situations and wanted to [force me] me to complete their sexual fantasies.” Stressing it was pointless to complain to the authorities, she added: “Shockingly, every time I exposed this behavior and sought help from the authorities, the pressures, threats and acts of torture increased and they repeatedly told me… not to do anything to irritate the regime.”
Also, in her never-published final defense presented to the court in August 2019, Bayani described her constant fear that agents may carry out their sexual threats: “Video recordings are a witness to how I was treated by the main interrogator… ‘Hamid Rezaie,’ whose name still makes me shudder. He was so shameful that whenever interrogations dragged on into the darkness [of the night], I would shake all over in fear of being seriously assaulted.” She continued: “I was increasingly terrified that if I didn’t write whatever he wanted, he would violently sexually assault me. Because of his inexplicable sudden appearances and disgusting behavior in various places like dark passages and in the detention yard, I didn’t feel safe anywhere. Intolerable anxiety never ceased.”
In another letter on January 24, 2019, to Sadegh Larijani, Iran’s Judiciary Chief at the time, Bayani wrote that IRGC intelligence agents had bluntly told her that “they would punch the judge’s mouth if he read a verdict in court other than what the IRGC had determined in advance.” In her letter written earlier this month, Bayani described tortures suffered during “22 months of illegal temporary detention” in the IRGC’s Ward 2-A. “All the confessions about espionage or engaging in other criminal acts were dictated and induced under the most severe mental and psychological torture as well as physical and sexual threats during at least 1,200 hours of interrogation,” she wrote. To prove her assertions, she requested the judiciary release audio and video recording of the interrogations along with medical files concerning her condition in detention. The conservationist added that “not even a single reason or legal document was presented” by the prosecution to back up the charges made against her and she was convicted only on the basis of forced confessions and military reports “that, according to the judge presiding over Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, were so secret that neither the accused, nor the lawyer or even the judge himself, had permission to view.”
Bayani added that she was “threatened with execution on a daily basis” and “endured eight months of total isolation in solitary confinement with long interrogations lasting 9-12 hours day and night.” She was “interrogated blindfolded while standing, spinning or sit-and-standing,” “threatened with the arrest and torture of my 70-year-old mother and father,” “threatened to be imprisoned in a one-meter cell,” “threatened with physical torture by being shown images and descriptions of torture devices,” “heard hours of detailed descriptions about the suffering and pain caused by torture as well as feelings at the moment execution.”
In her letter in early February 2020, the conservationist also wrote that interrogators “lifted her sleeve and threatened to inject crippling ampoules and air ampoules.” During weeks of interrogation one of the agents “kicked my chair so many times… that I suffered severe back pains,” Bayani said and another interrogator pretending to be a cleric “asked me to decide if I wanted to be flogged seventy times in the course of two days or 50 times in one day.” In her January 16, 2019, letter to the head of Ward 2-A, Bayani had mentioned that the so-called cleric had claimed to have been granted authority by IRGC intelligence organization chief Hossein Taleb to “conduct torture by ordering me to be flogged.”
In her February 11, 2019, letter to Khamenei, Bayani complained about the “turbaned person” and wrote that he had once told her that he would be conducting part of her trial in the IRGC’s Ward 2-A “and when I expressed surprise, he got angry and threw a chair at me and injured my knee.” “What completed my mental breakdown was when I was suddenly shown a photo of Dr. Seyed-Emami’s corpse in the cold room as his family stood by. [Agents] told me ‘That’s going to be your fate and the fate of all of your colleagues and family members unless you write whatever we want.’”
She added: “While I completely lost the strength to resist their pressures, agents dictated things that were later leveraged against me. They said ‘you wrote your death sentence with your own hand. You can’t get off this train anymore.’” According to Bayani, the interrogators said ‘the only way to save yourself and your colleagues is to write down everything we want,’ in other words an unbelievable fictional scenario about espionage under the guise of protecting the environment.”