(Beirut) – Iranian authorities have issued indictments against eight detained environmental activists that could lead to the death penalty, Human Rights Watch said today. Iranian authorities should immediately release these activists who have been arbitrary detained for nine months unless they can produce evidence to justify the charges against them and guarantee a fair trial.
On October 24, 2018, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, the Tehran prosecutor, said at a news conference that the authorities had finalized indictments for the activists, who have been held since January and February. He said that four face the charge of “sowing corruption on earth,” which includes the risk of the death penalty. He justified the charge based on a claim that the activists were “seeking proximity to military sites with the cover of the environmental projects and obtaining military information from them.”
“Iran’s judiciary appears determined to pursue serious charges against these environmental activists no matter how ridiculous the allegations of wrongdoing are and despite the continuing denial of the defendants’ right to see a lawyer of their choice,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “With the judiciary serving as one of the main cornerstones in Iran’s apparatus of repression, there is a major risk that they won’t get a fair trial.”
When the law is applied in such a vague way that people cannot predict which acts are crimes and detainees suffer major violations of due process rights, prosecutions are arbitrary, Human Rights Watch said.
On January 24 and 25, the Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence organization arrested Houman Jokar, Sepideh Kashani, Niloufar Bayani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Sam Rajabi, Taher Ghadirian, Kavous Seyed Emami, and Morad Tahbaz, all members of a local environmental group, the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation. On February 25, authorities arrested another environmentalist, Abdoreza Kouhpayeh, who remains in detention alone with seven other activists.
During nine months of pretrial detention, none of the detainees have had access to a lawyer of their choice and authorities have not set a trial date. On September 30, family members said on social media that judicial authorities had told them that the environmentalists can only be represented by lawyers from a pre-approved list of 20 that the judiciary had published in June.
The authorities have not allowed Mohammad Hossein Aghasi, a lawyer chosen by Rajabi and by Ghaderian’s family to represent them, to see his clients, Aghasi told Center for Human Rights in Iran. On October 22, Aghasi had told the Iran Wire news website that five of the detained activists faced the “corruption on earth” charge.
On February 10, family of Kavous Seyed Emami, an Iranian-Canadian university professor who was arrested with other activists, reported that he had died in detention in unknown circumstances. Iranian authorities claimed that he committed suicide, but they have not conducted an impartial investigation into his death and have placed a travel ban on his wife, Maryam Mombeini.
Two sources who have close knowledge of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation and preferred to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch that all of the foundation’s projects, including their wildlife monitoring projects, were carried out with required permission from relevant authorities.
Several senior Iranian government officials have said that they did not find any evidence to suggest that the detained activists are spies. On May 22, Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) reported that Issa Kalantari, the head of Iran’s Environmental Institution, said during a speech at a biodiversity conference that the government had formed a committee consisting of the ministers of intelligence, interior, and justice and the president’s legal deputy, and that they had concluded there was no evidence to suggest those detained are spies.
On October 22, when asked about the charges, Kalantari told ISNA that the committee could no longer intervene in the case and the Intelligence Ministry had announced its decision about these activists.
Article 48 of Iran’s 2014 criminal procedure law says that detainees charged with various offenses, including national or international security crimes, political, and media crimes, must select their counsel from a pre-approved pool selected by Iran’s judiciary during the investigation. The list of lawyers published in June did not include any women or human rights lawyers.
Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a state party, the authorities are required to ensure that anyone facing criminal charges has access to a lawyer of their choosing. Anyone arrested should be promptly informed of any charges against them, and detention before trial should be an exception, not the rule. Anyone detained is entitled to a trial within a reasonable time or release.
Under article 286 of Iran’s penal code, “Any person, who extensively commits a serious crime against people’s physical safety, offenses against internal or international security of the state, spreading lies, disruption of the economic system of the state, arson and destruction of properties” can be considered among the “corrupt on earth” and sentenced to death if the court finds “the intention to cause extensive disruption in the public order, or creating insecurity, or causing vast damage or spreading corruption and prostitution in a large scale, or the knowledge of effectiveness of the acts committed.” Otherwise, the sentence can be between six months and five years.