Insider news & Analysis in Iran

On Monday, international media began reporting upon the death of Kavous Seyed-Emami, a university professor and environmental activist who held dual citizenship in Iran and Canada and was caught up in a sudden crackdown on environmentalists which had been initiated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

According to the CHRI, Seyed-Emami’s arrest took place on January 24 and his death was officially announced on February 9. The Associated Press reported that this announcement was confirmed by several Iranian lawmakers on Monday and that these individuals also reiterated the judiciary’s claim that the prisoner had committed suicide. Such a claim is familiar to those who have been following political unrest since the outbreak of nationwide protests in late December, because at least two detained protesters were also said to have committed suicide.

These claims were quickly disputed in the cases of Sina Ghanbari and Vahid Heydari, by their families and fellow activists. When the bodies of these and other deceased protesters were returned to their families, they reportedly showed clear signs of torture. The National Council of Resistance of Iran has determined that at least a dozen protesters have died under these circumstances, but their stories have received varying levels of exposure in part because of the pressure that regime authorities exert on the families of deceased prisoners.

This patter is recurring in the case of Seyed-Emami, according to multiple reports. On one hand, Associated Press noted that Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of a parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, declared that the prisoner’s family had accepted the official account of his suicide. But this claim conflicts with the accounts given by the New York Times and by two separate reports from CHRI, among other sources.

The discrepancy likely reflects the regime’s efforts to compel cooperation from witnesses and relatives who might otherwise undermine the official narrative. This is something that the second CHRI report specifically warned about, noting that Iran has a “long and document history of forcing individuals to make statements and confessions.” The report also suggests that further evidence of a constructed narrative about the death can be seen in the efforts by Tehran’s chief prosecutor to give an exact account of the reason for the alleged suicide.

“This person was one of the accused [environmental activists] and given he knew that there is a torrent of confessions against him and he confessed himself, unfortunately he committed suicide in prison,” the prosecutor said.

The New York Times indicates that Seyed-Emami’s family categorically denied the allegation that he had been operating as a spy, and of course similar denials have been repeated by other environmentalists who were arrested as part of the same crackdown. Following the arrests of several co-founders of the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation, the IRGC also ordered the arrest of the head of the Iranian government’s own Department of the Environment. This official, Kaveh Madani, was reportedly detained on Saturday but released on Monday, but it remains unclear whether he still stands to face charges.

Although the question of criminal charges is now irrelevant in the case of the deceased Seyed-Emami, the accusations of spying might still be reinforced through forced confessions by his would-be co-defendants. This is arguably even more important for the regime now, as it is essential to the official account not only of his arrest but also of the circumstances of his death.

Accordingly, CHRI describes authorities as being engaged in an “increasingly desperate cover-up,” which includes pressuring Seyed-Emami’s loved ones to bury his quickly, before an independent autopsy can be performed. Boroujerdi’s statement on the case declared that in addition to acquiescing to the official narrative, the family had declined to ask for an autopsy. But this too was contradicted by other sources.

On the basis of these contradictions, there is grounds for skepticism about Boroujerdi’s further claim that several lawmakers had seen CCTV footage that corroborates the official account of Seyed-Emami’s death. There is no indication that such footage has been viewed by any other party, let alone a reliably independent one. Statements by CHRI and other human rights groups urge the Iranian judiciary to make all evidence available to a full and independent investigation into this death. Meanwhile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran continues to urge a similar inquiry into all suspicious deaths that it has recorded since the nationwide protests.

Furthermore, this is not the only broad-based human rights campaign to which Seyed-Emami’s death is relevant. His case is representative of the separate, ongoing problems of torture and repression of dissent. But it also highlights the similarly ongoing problem of Tehran criminalizing dual nationality. This may have informed the IRGC’s targeting of Seyed-Emami and also of Madani, the Iranian environment official.

As the New York Times notes, Madani was educated in the US and held an academic position at London’s Imperial College, from which he was on leave at the time of his arrest. The report also suggests that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hired Madani “as a sign the country is ready to welcome back expatriate Iranians.” Rouhani has professed that readiness at various times since taking office in 2013, but dual nationals and returned expatriates have remained the constant target of arrest and intimidation.

The announcement of Seyed-Emami’s death came on the same day that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement once again urging the Iranian judiciary to vacate the death sentence imposed on Ahmadreza Djalali, an Iranian-born academic and medical doctor who was residing in Sweden when he traveled to Iran in April 2016 at the invitation of Tehran University. Djalali was then arrested, denied due process, and forced to make false statements, leading to his conviction on unsubstantiated charges of espionage.

The UN statement was issued in the wake of reports that Djalali had been denied an opportunity to appeal his case. Such reports are indicative of the arbitrary mistreatment that is especially likely to be visited upon dual nationals. The CHRI’s reporting on Seyed-Emami’s death notes that there are at least a dozen other dual nationals currently in detention in the Islamic Republic.

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