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Environmentalist Niloufar Bayani is believed to have been held in Iran's notorious Evin prison since early 2018. (file photo)

Environmentalist Niloufar Bayani says she was subjected to at least 1,200 hours of interrogation and torture by the intelligence branch of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) during which she was threatened with death, rape, and forced to imitate the sounds of wild animals.

The torture, detailed in documents obtained by the BBC's Persian Service, including Bayani's letters to Iranian authorities, was aimed at breaking her and making her confess to charges brought against her and other environmentalists, including "cooperating with the hostile state of the U.S."

Bayani, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence, is among eight members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation -- including Iranian-American Morad Tahbaz -- who were arrested in early 2018 on charges of spying.

Their prison sentences, which range from four to 10 years, have been upheld by a higher court, Iran's judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili announced on February 18.

The intelligence branch of the powerful IRGC arrested the environmentalists, including the director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, Kavous Seyed Emami, a well-respected Iranian-Canadian university professor, in late January 2018.

Seyed Emami died in detention days later under unclear circumstances. Authorities said he committed suicide, but the claim was questioned by his friends and relatives.

'Sexual Threats'

In excerpts from the documents, which have been published by the BBC, Bayani said she had a mental breakdown after her interrogators showed her a photo of Seyed Emami's body in a morgue surrounded by his family and warned her that she and her colleagues could meet the same fate if they didn't confess to the charges being dictated to them.

"This will be you, all of your colleagues, and your family unless you [make a written confession] to everything we want," Bayani, who studied in the United States and Canada, said.

Iranian-Canadian environmentalist Kavous Seyed-Emami (file photo)
Iranian-Canadian environmentalist Kavous Seyed-Emami (file photo)

Bayani, who worked for the United Nation's Environmental Program from 2012 to 2017 before returning to Iran, has also claimed she was subjected to sexual threats and slurs and forced to participate in the sexual games of her interrogators.

"They would…[force] me to complete their sexual fantasies," Bayani had said in documents seen and verified by the BBC.

Bayani is in Iran's notorious Evin prison, where she is believed to have been held since she was detained in early 2018.

In a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Bayani also said she was taken to a villa in Lavasan, an affluent town in the mountains near the Iranian capital, with seven armed men and forced to watch "their immoral and un-Islamic behavior" in a private pool.

Bayani, who her acquaintances said returned to Iran in 2017 to help the country, also said at one point that she was asked by an interrogator to choose between being flogged 70 times over the course of two days or receive 50 lashes in a single day.

'Increasingly Terrified'

She added that she was subjected to daily threats of execution. She also underwent interrogation sessions lasting between nine and 12 hours that were sometimes conducted at night.

"I was increasingly terrified that if I didn't write whatever [my interrogator] wanted, he would sexually assault me," Bayani, who is in her early 30s, wrote.

Bayani said publicly during her trial in February 2019 that she had been tortured, held for several months in solitary confinement, and forced to confess under duress.

"If you were being threatened with a needle of hallucinogenic drugs [hovering] above your arm, you would also confess to whatever they wanted you to confess," Bayani was quoted by Human Rights Watch (HRW) as having said during the second session of her trial.

Details of the pressure and abuse she had faced had not been revealed until now.

The jailed activists: (clockwise from top left): Niloufar Bayani, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, Houman Jokar, Amirhossein Khaleghi Hamidi, Taher Ghadirian, Morad Tahbaz, Sepideh Kashan Doust, and Sam Rajabi
The jailed activists: (clockwise from top left): Niloufar Bayani, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, Houman Jokar, Amirhossein Khaleghi Hamidi, Taher Ghadirian, Morad Tahbaz, Sepideh Kashan Doust, and Sam Rajabi

Speaking on February 19, the lawyer of another of the jailed environmentalists -- Sepideh Kashani -- suggested she had also faced similar treatment to that experienced by Bayani.

"It was something [similar] to these issues because [Kashani and Bayani] had common cases during the investigation," Kashani's lawyer, Kazem Hosseini, told the Iranian news site Ensafnews.ir.

"There have been some incidents that completely undermine the investigation," he added.

According to rights organizations and former detainees, Iranian interrogators often resort to torture to extract false confessions from political prisoners.

Many former Iranian detainees in recent years have recanted their confessions after being released from prison, saying they were forced to read from scripts dictated to them by their interrogators.

HRW has said Iranian authorities have failed to produce any evidence to support their charges against Bayani and other members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation.

"Iran's revolutionary courts are 'revolutionary' only in their ability to fabricate charges without evidence," Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW, said in a February 19 statement.

"Two years on, there's still not a shred of evidence against these environmental experts, and the authorities should release them immediately," he said.

Iranian lawmaker Mahmud Sadeghi said last year that Iran's Supreme National Security Council did not deem activities by the jailed environmentalists to amount to spying.

The other five environmentalists imprisoned are Houman Jokar, Sam Rajabi, Taher Ghadirian, Amirhossein Khaleghi, and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh.

Dozens Detained As Police Block Opposition Rallies in Kazakhstan
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ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- More than 100 people planning to attend opposition rallies in Almaty and other cities in Kazakhstan have been detained by police, who were deployed in large numbers in a show of force to halt the unsanctioned events.

The activists from the unregistered Democratic Party shouted “Freedom!” as police detained them on February 22 not far from a central square where supporters had planned to hold an unsanctioned rally amid a heavy police presence in and around the location.

Police had been deployed in large numbers from early morning, sealing off the square and detaining many passersby.

Kazakh Police Detain Dozens Of Activists Ahead Of Opposition Rally
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Kazakhstan has long been criticized for its restrictive laws regulating demonstrations. President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev pledged in 2019 to carry out reforms after succeeding Nursultan Nazarbaev, who ruled the country for nearly 30 years.

On the eve of the rally, Zhanbolat Mamai, a leading figure in the Democratic Party, was arrested and sentenced to three days in administrative detention.

Among those detained on February 22 was Mamai’s wife, Inga Imanbai.

“Were we asked whether we wanted a street named after Nazarbaev, or the capital to be named Nur-Sultan? We used to laugh about North Korea and Turkmenistan. Nazarbaev’s power will end. The Democratic Party will be, and will win,” Imanbai told the gathering before police bundled her into a police car.

Despite no longer being president, Nazarbaev continues to head the ruling Nur-Otan party and remains chairman for life of the powerful Security Council. Just one day after Nazarbaev resigned on March 19, 2019, the capital was renamed by decree from Astana to Nur-Sultan, despite opposition from the public.

Mamai, a filmmaker, told the AFP news agency on February 21 that "at least ten" members of the group had received sentences of up to five days in detention earlier this week.

In 2017, Mamai was convicted on what he and supporters say were trumped-up money-laundering charges and handed a three-year suspended sentence that is still in force.

Later on February 22, another opposition movement, Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), tried to hold a second rally in Almaty, but again police stepped in quickly to block activists from gathering.

According to an RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent, Internet access in Almaty was limited during the day on February 22 as mobile phone services were being blocked.

There were also reports that police had detained other DVK supporters before a planned rally in the capital, Nur-Sultan, one of several other Kazakh cities where the DVK had planned to hold events.

A total of around 100 were detained in both Almaty and Nur-Sultan. A further 20 were taken into police custody in the southern city of Shymkent, and another 10 in the northern city of Aqtobe.

The DVK was banned by a Kazakh court in 2018 as extremist. On February 20, the Kazakh Prosecutor-General’s office called on citizens not to take part in what it called the "illegal" rallies planned by the DVK.

Deputy Prosecutor-General Bolat Dembaev's statement announced via state-run media on February 20 warned citizens that law enforcement officers will "undertake strict measures to prevent illegal rallies," adding that participants in "illegal protests" may face administrative and criminal charges.

"Any actions by any person to organize or take part in an unsanctioned public event will be suppressed... The Prosecutor-General's office calls on the citizens to strictly follow laws and to stay away from provocations and participation in illegal public activities," the statement said.

Dozens of DVK supporters and other activists across Kazakhstan had been fined or sentenced to jail terms ranging from 5 to 15 days ahead of the planned rallies on charges of organizing or taking part in earlier unsanctioned demonstrations.

The DVK is led by Mukhtar Ablyazov, who has been living in self-imposed exile in Europe for more than a decade. He thanked the state prosecutor for giving the group "an advert" ahead of the planned demonstrations.

The Democratic Party had been planning to hold a congress in Almaty on February 22, but cancelled it on February 19 because of the arrests and detentions of party activists.

Authorities have reportedly detained dozens of party supporters in cities around the country, most of them for allegedly participating in earlier unsanctioned demonstrations. Kazakh law requires that a party's founding congress be attended by at least 1,000 people.

Instead of the congress, Mamai's group called on supporters to attend a February 22 protest in the center of Almaty.

Human rights proponents have said Kazakhstan’s law on public gatherings contradicts international standards as it requires preliminary permission from authorities to hold rallies and envisions prosecution for organizing and participating in unsanctioned rallies even though the nation's constitution guarantees its citizens the right of free assembly.

During a working visit to Nur-Sultan earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lauded what he said was a "real improvement in Kazakhstan" and "real changes" since Toqaev came to power last year.

With reporting by AFP

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