Human Rights Watch (HRW) has joined a chorus of calls for an independent inquiry into the death of a 63-year-old Iranian-Canadian academic and environmental activist in a Tehran prison.
Iran’s authorities say Kavous Seyed-Emami committed suicide while in custody, but his family and activists cast doubt on the official account and request an independent autopsy on his body.
Seyed-Emami was buried on February 13 in the village of Amaneh, 40 kilometers north of the capital Tehran.
In a February 13 statement, HRW said it is the third “suspicious death” among detainees in Iranian prisons since early January that authorities have labeled as suicide, which the New York-based rights group said underscored the need for an independent inquiry.
“Iranian judicial authorities think they can get away with claiming that Seyed-Emami, a well-known professor, simply committed suicide while being detained in one of the highest-security wards of Evin prison,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW.
Whitson added that Iran’s judiciary “long ago lost its credibility after failing to investigate repeated incidents of torture and mistreatment in detention.”
Authorities reportedly detained Seyed-Emami on January 24 on what HRW described as “bogus” espionage charges.
On February 10, his son Ramin Emami wrote in social-media posts that authorities had told his mother that her husband had died in detention.
“They said he committed suicide. I still can't believe this,” he wrote, adding that the family was asking for an independent autopsy.
Iran’s judiciary later confirmed that Seyed-Emami died in prison and said his death was a suicide.
Seyed-Emami “was one of the defendants in a spying case and unfortunately he committed suicide in prison since he knew that many had made confessions against him and because of his own confessions," Tehran's prosecutor Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi told the semiofficial ILNA news agency on February 11.
And on February 12, ILNA quoted Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of the parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, as saying some lawmakers confirmed Seyed-Emami committed suicide after watching CCTV footage from his time in custody.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Farda, the lawyer for the Seyed-Emami family, Payam Derakhshan, said it had seen CCTV footage showing Seyed-Emami in his jail cell. But he said the alleged suicide was not included.
“The suicide is not on the video," Derakhshan said in a February 12 telephone interview.
He added that an autopsy was conducted but that the results have not been published yet.
"It usually takes a month," the lawyer said.
In an open letter published on February 12, four academic societies in Iran related to political science, sociology, peace studies, and cultural studies urged President Hassan Rohani to “take immediate and effective action to seriously investigate the case...and make the institutions involved in this painful loss accountable."
Describing Seyed-Emami as a "distinguished scientist” and an “ethical human being," the letter read that "the news and rumors related to his arrest and death are not believable."
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.
Many have also raised questions about the fates of as many as seven of his fellow environmentalists who were said to have been detained as well.
“This seems to be yet another wave of crackdown against people who want to help with solving the country’s chronic problems,” Whitson said. “The Iranian judiciary should immediately and unconditionally release these activists unless they have credible evidence to charge them promptly with a recognizable crime and guarantee their rights.”
With reporting by RFE/RL Radio Farda's Farin Assemi and Iran daily