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Fellow Ecologists Among Skeptics Over Iranian 'Suicide' In Custody

Kavous Seyed-Emami who has reportedly died in jail just two weeks after his arrest on January 24, 2018.
Kavous Seyed-Emami who has reportedly died in jail just two weeks after his arrest on January 24, 2018.

Kavous Seyed-Emami, a prominent Iranian-Canadian conservationist, university lecturer, and Iran-Iraq War veteran, was hailed as passionate about nature and his homeland by many of those who reacted with shock and skepticism at authorities' claim that he committed suicide in a Tehran jail cell.

His family has cast doubt on the official account and requested an independent autopsy on the body of the 64-year-old* Seyed-Emami, whom authorities reportedly detained on February 24 on suspicion of espionage.

The public outcry was particularly swift within the environmental and scientific communities to the death in custody of Seyed-Emami in a country where ex-prisoners say confessions are routinely coerced and where only weeks ago other inmate deaths were blamed on suicide.

Many also raised questions about the fates of as many as seven of Seyed-Emami's fellow environmentalists who were said to have been detained as well, after officials accused them publicly of collecting "classified information about the country's strategic areas under the guise of carrying out scientific and environmental projects."

The only "classified dirt" that Seyed-Emami and his colleagues were likely to have accessed in their work is the "dried stool" of cheetahs they were fighting to protect, tweeted Mojgan Jamshidi, an Iranian journalist who covers environmental issues.

"These are among the most honest, caring, and professional individuals in the country, not spies."

Seyed-Emami taught sociology at Tehran’s Imam Sadegh University while also managing the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, which works to protect endangered animals and raise public awareness about the environment.

Hesamedin Ashna, an adviser to President Hassan Rohani, who has publicly pressed for easing some of the restrictions on Iranians' personal lives, said on Twitter that "sociologists of religion and those working to protect the environment don't commit suicide."

He did not elaborate, but added later in an apparent call for increased oversight that "judges, prosecutors, and interrogators are neither infallible nor faultless and free from spite and hatred."

"Just as it is necessary to supervise the executive branch, it is necessary to supervise their dealings with defendants," Ashna said.

Iranian lawmaker Abdolreza Hashemzayi urged senior Iranian officials to be transparent about the case for the public.

Kavous Seyed-Emami
Kavous Seyed-Emami

"If this university professor was really a spy, then the Intelligence Ministry should say clearly what kind of information he had that he could transfer [to enemies] against the interests of the country and to what extent as a professor he had access to classified information," Hashemzayi told Roozarooznews.

Alireza Eshraghi, a former student of Seyed-Emami's and the Iran project director at the Institute For War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), accused Iranian authorities of shamelessness by claiming that Seyed-Emami had committed suicide.

"Dr. Kavous Seyed-Emami was arrested on Jan 24, and died two weeks later while still in detention. #Iran's judiciary claims he has committed suicide in prison! Needless to mention that they are not familiar with the concept of shame," he tweeted.

He referred to Seyed-Emami as "a very kind and peaceful person, a rigorous scholar and an ardent environmental activist."

"They say he committed suicide," Seyed-Emami's son, popular singer Raam Emami, said via Instagram. He added that he "still can't believe" that his father would have committed suicide.

Iran frequently levels espionage charges against political and human rights activists and also dual nationals without publicly providing evidence. Prosecutions in Iran's so-called revolutionary courts are frequently kept secret from defendants' families and even lawyers.

Seyed-Emami was injured after volunteering and fighting on the front lines of Iran's bloody 1980-88 war with Iraq.

"It’s unbelievable that a man like him, with his passion and love of life and nature and dedication to serving his country, would commit suicide," a Tehran-based sociologist and acquaintance of Seyed-Emami's told RFE/RL.

"[Authorities] are shameless to make such claims,” the sociologist, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, added.

The acquaintance said the case is likely to have a chilling effect on dissent in the country, where more than 90 cities and towns were hit by social protests in December and January, leading to dozens of deaths and thousands of arrests.

"When they bring such charges against such a distinguished figure, then no one is safe," the source said.

Sadegh Zibakalam, a well-known Iranian commentator and university professor, wrote on Twitter that whoever knew Seyed-Emami even slightly was likely to be more shocked about the allegations that he had accessed classified information to share with Iran’s enemies than the news of his death in prison.

Four leading Iranian academic organizations also expressed doubt about the official claims.

"The news and rumors related to his arrest and death are not believable," Iran’s Society of Political Science, Iran’s Society of Sociology, the Society of Peace Studies, and the Association for Cultural Studies and Communications said in a joint statement.

"Our minimum expectation is that you take immediate and effective action to seriously investigate the case,” the statement added.

Toronto-based environmental reporter Sam Khosravifard told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that he thought Seyed-Emami's arrest was a continuation of the Iranian political establishment's pressure on dual nationals who are accused of working with Iran's enemies.

Other detained environmental activists in Iran include Iranian-U.S. citizen Morad Tahbaz, who had been accused by media outlets affiliated by the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) of selling hunting permits.

"I personally believe that the recent arrests are aimed at pressuring dual-nationals and gathering forced confessions against an Iranian-American national," Khosravifard said. "Access to natural resources or protected areas is unlikely to be used for espionage purposes."

At least three people detained during Iran's recent unrest died under conditions deemed suspicious by human rights activists and former detainees. Authorities have said the three committed suicide.

*CORRECTION: Kavous Seyed Emami's age has been changed from the original version of this story.

Radio Farda reporter Amir Mossadegh Katouzian contributed to this report
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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