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Q&A: Why Iranian conservationists are facing ‘ludicrous’ spying charges

With the fates of eight conservationists jailed in Iran on espionage charges hanging in the balance, a campaign to win their freedom is picking up steam. For more than a year, colleagues and family members have been quietly lobbying Iran’s government and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for the detainees’ release. But now, with closed trials proceeding in Tehran, institutions and influential individuals are scrambling to train a spotlight on the trials. They argue that convictions would not only be a tragedy for the detainees, but also an international disgrace.

The imprisoned conservationists are all with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), a Tehran-based organization that had been using camera traps to monitor dwindling species such as the Persian leopard, Asiatic cheetah, Asiatic black bear, and Laristan wild sheep. Iran’s hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, known as the Sepah, accused the group of using the cameras to spy on military installations.

In January and February 2018, the Sepah detained PWHF’s Niloufar Bayani, Taher Ghadirian, Houman Jokar, Sepideh Kashani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, Sam Rajabi, and Morad Tahbaz. They also arrested Kavous Seyed-Emami, an Iranian-Canadian sociologist and PWHF’s co-founder. Seyed-Emami died in detention on 8 February 2018; Iranian officials insist he committed suicide, an explanation his family rejects. In November 2018, Iran’s judiciary upgraded charges against four remaining detainees—Bayani, Ghadirian, Jokar, and Tahbaz—to “sowing corruption on Earth,” which can bring the death penalty. In response, more than 330 conservationists and scholars from 66 countries wrote to Khamenei, saying they “strongly condemn” the possibility that “the neutral field of conservation could ever be used to pursue political objectives.”

Hardliners are in ascension in Iran, emboldened by an economy in tatters after the United States’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and subsequent efforts to further isolate Iran. Acknowledging that discreet diplomacy has failed, prominent groups are publicly assailing the conservationists’ detention and what many see as sham trials. Last week, 26 members of the European Parliament wrote to Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, expressing their “strong concerns” over the prolonged detention and “serious violations of their due process and fair trial rights,” and called for their “immediate and unconditional release.” And in a 22 February statement, the Wildlife Conservation Society, a nonprofit in New York City, stated that the Iranian conservationists should not be “put into personal jeopardy for pursuing scientific knowledge and preserving their country’s unique natural heritage.”

Adding his voice to the rising chorus is David Laylin, 82, an ecologist in Orange, Virginia, who has long helped broker exchanges between Iranian and Western scientists and environmentalists. Laylin’s family is well known in Iran: His father, an international lawyer, helped Iran negotiate a landmark water-sharing accord with Afghanistan, and later helped forge the 1975 Shatt al-Arab border agreement between Iran and Iraq. His sister, Louise Firouz, lived in Iran most of her life and is known for her efforts to preserve the Caspian horse, a rare breed. (She died in 2008.) For 15 years before the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Laylin himself was a partner and manager of Iran’s only hunting and fishing outfitting company.

The PWHF detainees, Laylin says, “are all my close friends.” From 2008 to 2017, as a senior adviser to the Persian Wildlife Foundation, a U.S.-based sister organization, Laylin traveled extensively to PWHF’s field sites in Iran. (Tahbaz set up both foundations.) In 2015, based on an article in Iran Wire that labeled Laylin “suspicious,” the Sepah accused him of being a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative. In July 2017, during Laylin’s last trip to Iran for a conference on sand and dust storms, he was interrogated. “There’s no way I could go back to Iran right now,” he says.

Laylin says it’s not surprising that hardliners have targeted him—“I’m an American who speaks Farsi and has traveled to a lot of places in Iran” that are off the beaten track. But he insists he has no connection to CIA. “I want to clear my name and return to Iran. It’s my home.”

Like others, Laylin has kept a low profile for months while advocating for the conservationists’ release. Though coming at the 11th hour, a vigorous international outcry may still save the detainees, he asserts in a recent interview with Science. This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: How are the conservationists holding up?

A: Pretty well, from what I can tell. They all endured several months of solitary confinement. Niloufar Bayani was intimidated into signing a false confession. But she was very courageous on the trial’s first day. She spoke up and said she was threatened with torture, and she retracted the confession.

Q: How could their conservation work be misconstrued as spying?

A: The charge is ludicrous. I’ve been to all the areas where the PWHF people were working—there are no military installations there. Also, the camera traps are incapable of transmitting data on their own.

David Laylin

David Laylin

The Sepah went after them for a completely different reason. There’s paranoia amongst the hardliners about any contact with the West, both from a cultural standpoint in terms of undermining the tenets of the revolution, and also in the false belief that scientific exchanges or conservation work could lead to Iranians being proselytized or turned into spies. Yet at the same time, there’s a tremendous need for scientific exchanges in many fields.

Q: Have you or others sought to contact the Revolutionary Guard directly?

A: Iranians are terrified of speaking with them. I know of one family who knows a high-ranking Sepah general. He’s a friend of the family—but they’re afraid to even contact him. I think the Sepah had made up their minds that they wanted to shut this operation down. There was too much contact with the West, especially U.S. institutions and individuals.

Q: Why were four charged with “sowing corruption on Earth”?

A: They are the leadership. [Tahbaz] managed the foundation and arranged all the financing. [Jokar] was a senior manager and scientific figure, meeting with foreign scientists. [Ghadirian] did a lot of traveling around the country—we traveled to many places together. That could have made him a person of suspicion. I can’t think of any other reason why they would be singled out that way.

Q: Is there any hope for a fair trial?

A: It’s not a trial in the sense we know here. The outcome won’t have anything to do with fairness or morality or legal issues. It will depend on what the Sepah think they can get away with. They’re under an awful lot of pressure because of the country’s economic and environmental woes. There’s a lot of unhappiness over water scarcity, and sand and dust storms, for instance.

Q: A lot of the campaigning has targeted Iran’s government. Does the government have any leverage over the Revolutionary Guard?

A: There was a tremendous outpouring of outrage at [Seyed-Emami’s] death. There has been pressure on the Sepah to come up with an explanation. They haven’t done so. To the extent the elected government has influence depends on the times. Influential people in the parliament and in government say categorically that the environmentalists are innocent. But the Sepah are saying we have information you don’t; shut up and mind your own business.

Q: With the trials underway, is it too late to make a difference?

A: The Sepah don’t operate in a vacuum. To the extent the general public is informed, this puts pressure on them. They have to be rather careful. They’re walking a fine line. They are going to have to defend these verdicts. The more of an international outcry, as well as a domestic outcry, the more pressure there will be on them to do so.

In my opinion, the Sepah are now in a bind. They know that I and the others are innocent of all charges, but they would look foolish to admit that. What needs to happen is some face-saving scenario that would permit the Sepah to release all eight, without looking foolish or incompetent.