Six conservationists working to save the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah have been sentenced to prison on internationally criticized espionage charges in Iran, activists said Thursday, even as protests and unrest continue in parts of the country amid a government-imposed internet shutdown.
The case against members of the nonprofit Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation show how spying charges and convictions can be levied against dual nationals and those with Western ties in Iran in closed-door trials before its Revolutionary Court.
News of the cases comes after demonstrations against government-set gasoline prices rising turned violent in Iran, killing at least 106 people, according to Amnesty International.
Iran disputes that figure without offering its own and has turned off the internet across the country. A UN office earlier said it feared the unrest may have killed “a significant number of people.”
The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran said Thursday that the convicted conservationists face six to 10 years in prison for “contacts with the U.S. enemy state.” Two others have yet to hear verdicts, it said.
The conservationists found themselves arrested over their use of camera traps to track the cheetahs, a common tool of wildlife experts.
One of the conservationists, Iranian-Canadian citizen Kavous Seyed-Emami, died in disputed circumstances in prison in February 2018 awaiting trial. His widow then was blocked from flying out of Iran, but later made it out.
Iran’s Revolutionary Court typically handles espionage cases and others involving smuggling, blasphemy and attempts to overthrow the country’s Islamic government. Westerners and Iranian dual nationals often find themselves tried and convicted in closed-door trials in these courts, only later to be used as bargaining chips in negotiations.
“The only crimes that have been committed in relation to the conservationists are their unlawful arrest, their cruel and inhuman treatment in prolonged solitary confinement, the denial of their due process rights, and their sham convictions and sentencing, without evidence or regard for the requirements of law,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the center’s executive director.
Iranian state media and judiciary officials did not immediately comment on the verdicts, which is common in Revolutionary Court cases. The semiofficial Fars news agency, close to the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, carried a short story acknowledging the verdicts.