Eight environmental activists arbitrarily detained in Iran in January and February 2018 remain in detention eight months later without clear charges, Human Rights Watch said today. Iranian authorities should either immediately release them or charge them with recognizable crimes and produce evidence to justify their continued detention.

On September 30, family members said on social media that judicial authorities had told them that the detained environmentalists can only be represented by lawyers from a pre-approved list of 20 that the judiciary had published in June. The authorities have not allowed the detained environmentalists access to lawyers of their choice or set a trial date.

“Iran’s judiciary is again highlighting its role as key functionaries in a repressive state machinery rather than defenders of justice,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Even though the environmentalists have spent eight months in pretrial detention, the authorities have still not come up with a criminal charge against them.”

On January 24 and 25, the Revolutionary Guards intelligence organization arrested Houman Jokar, Sepideh Kashani, Niloufar Bayani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Sam Rajabi, Taher Ghadirian, Kavous Seyed Emami, and Morad Tahbaz, all members of a local environmental group, the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation. On February 13, Abbas Jafaridolatabadi, the prosecutor of Tehran, told reporters that detained activists are accused of using environmental projects as a cover to collect classified strategic information.

It is unclear what classified strategic information they could potentially collect, as their organization says it only works to conserve and protect Iran’s flora and fauna, including the Asiatic Cheetah, an endangered species in Iran. On February 10, the family of Seyed Emami, an Iranian-Canadian university professor, reported that he had died in detention in unknown circumstances. Iranian authorities claimed that he committed suicide, but they have not conducted an impartial investigation into his death and have placed a travel ban on his wife, Maryam Mombeini.

On February 25, the Persian-language Etemed newspaper reported that authorities had arrested four other environmental activists, including Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, another member of the wildlife heritage group, who remains in detention. The three others were released from prison.

On May 9, Mojgan Jamshidi, a journalist who covers environmental issues, tweeted that authorities had arrested more than 40 local environmental activists in the city of Bander-e-Lengeh, in Hormozgan province in southern Iran. All 40 were later released, two sources confirmed to Human Rights Watch.

Several senior Iranian government officials have said that they did not find any evidence to suggest that the detained activists are spies. On May 22, ISNA News Agency reported that Issa Kalantari, the head of Iran’s Environmental Institution, said during a speech at a bio-diversity conference that the government had formed a committee consisting of the ministers of intelligence, interior, and justice and the president’s legal deputy, and that they had concluded there was no evidence to suggest those detained are spies. Kalantari added that the committee said the environmentalists should be released.

A source who wished to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch on October 3 that a person who works in the prosecutor’s office told families of four of the detained environmentalists that they had been charged with “sowing corruption on earth,” a serious charge that includes the risk of execution. One of the families’ lawyers told the Center for Human Rights in Iran on October 8 that authorities have issued five indictments, but he believed authorities are falsely threatening the families with the “corruption on earth” charge to scare the families into choosing lawyers from the approved list.

Article 48 of Iran’s 2014 criminal procedure law says that detainees charged with various offenses, including national or international security crimes, political, and media crimes, must select their counsel from a pre-approved pool selected by Iran’s judiciary during the investigation. The list published in June of lawyers allowed to represent people charged with national security crimes in Tehran province did not include any women or human rights lawyers.

Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iran is required to ensure that anyone facing criminal charges has access to a lawyer of their choosing. Anyone arrested should be promptly informed of any charges against them, and detention before trial should be an exception, not the rule. Anyone detained is entitled to a trial within a reasonable time or release.

Under article 286 of Iran’s penal code, Any person, who extensively commits a felony against people’s physical safety, offenses against internal or international security of the state, spreading lies, disruption of the economic system of the state, arson and destruction of properties” can be considered among the “corrupt on earth” and sentenced to death if the court finds “the intention to cause extensive disruption in the public order, or creating insecurity, or causing vast damage or spreading corruption and prostitution in a large scale, or the knowledge of effectiveness of the acts committed.” If not, the sentence can be between six months and five years.

“Iran’s leaders need to search no further for a source of simmering societal anger against them than the judiciary’s despicable treatment of peaceful activists who are only trying to mitigate the country’s many serious problems, including environmental crises,” Whitson said.

Cover photo: A campaign poster showing environmental activists, Taher Ghadirian, Niloufar Bayani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Houman Jokar, Sam Rajabi, Sepideh Kashani, Morad Tahbaz and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, who have been in detention for six months.