Officials say Kavous Seyed Emami used endangered Asiatic cheetah surveys as pretext for spying, but no evidence has been cited The judiciary said Iranian-Canadian professor Kavous Seyed Emami was a Mossad agent who killed himself in prison, though his family dispute this. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
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Jonathan Watts and Saeed Kamali Dehghan Thu 15 Feb 2018 07.00 GMT UN officials have urged the Iranian government to respect the work of environmental activists following the death in custody last week of wildlife campaigner, Kavous Seyed Emami. Emami was buried on Monday, but several members of the organisation he founded, the PersianWildlife Heritage Foundation, remain in jail and the deputy head of the Environmental Protection Organisation, Kaveh Madani, was detained for 72 hours over the weekend. The judiciary said the Iranian-Canadian professor was a CIA-Mossad agent who killed himself in prison, though his family dispute this and have filed a complaint. The Canadian government has also pressed Iran for answers about the death of one of their dual-national citizens. Officials say he and his associates used surveys of endangered Asiatic cheetahs as a pretext for spying in strategically sensitive areas. No evidence for these allegations has been presented, prompting concerns that the revolutionary guard may have targeted the wildlife group because many of its members are binational figures who were educated in the west and have connections with international conservation groups. “Environmental rights are human rights, and we all have an obligation to protect them. We are closely following these cases in Iran and urge that the work of environment defenders – both in Iran and around the world – be promoted and respected,” said UN Environment head, Erik Solheim. Among those who have been detained for the past few weeks is Niloufar Bayani, who was research fellow with the Wildlife Conservation Society and supported UN Environment projects in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Haiti. She returned to Iran, her birthplace, last June to join the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation. Another is US-Iranian businessman Morad Tahbaz, who was a CEO of the group. One of the group’s core activities was to protect the Asiatic cheetah, which is one of the world’s most endangered species with only 50 left alive. This is a global conservation priority, but for hardline Iranian commentators, it is cause for suspicion. Under a column headlined “Iranian Cheetah or Spy?”, the editor of Kayhan, Hossein Shariatmadari (who was appointed to his job by supreme leader Ali Khamenei) asked: “Why is the cheetah becoming such an important issue? Why are too many foreigners entering Iran for this? What are the real identities of US/European experts coming to Iran? And why are they so keen to search the deserts all day and night?” The Asiatic cheetah, which is one of the world’s most endangered species with only 50 left alive. Photograph: Vahid Salemi/AP
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Adding to the general mood of suspicion towards environmentalists, senior military adviser Hassan Firouzabadi said western intelligence agencies had a track record of using science, conservation and tourism as a cover for espionage. In one previous case, he claimed the country’s nuclear programme had been monitored using lizards that “could attract atomic waves”. But others were doubtful. Gary Lewis, the former head of the UN mission in Iran tweeted that Emami was a “good man who loved #nature, and Iran. He was my friend and he will be missed.” Sources who previously worked with Emami said the wildlife group may be a victim of Iran’s political turbulence as the environment rises up the political agenda and becomes a focus of feuding between rival power groups. Concerns about drought were a trigger for a recent nationwide wave of protests that morphed into demands for an end to the political influence of clerics in Iran. Government officials have also come under pressure. On Sunday, outspoken Iranian MPMahmoud Sadeghi tweeted that Kaveh Madani, deputy head of Iran’s environmental protection agency, was among those detained at the weekend. The sequence of events surrounding Madani’s detention and whether he is still under restriction is unclear. On Monday he posted a tweet calling for “an end to narrow-mindedness”, which appeared to confirm the news about him being targeted, but also signalling that had since been released. Madani’s agency posted an image on Twitter that day which showed him participating in his department’s meeting with the German ambassador, and he separately later appeared on a live Instagram stream. But some have cast doubt, saying it is not clear if the authorities have entirely freed him. His detention deals a blow to the administration of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, which last year plucked him from his position at Imperial CollegeLondon for the government job in a bid to show that it is opening up space for Iranians living abroad. The intelligence apparatus and the judiciary, which act independently of Rouhani’s government, on the other hand, are highly suspicious of such figures and have attempted to thwart the president’s efforts. --- ---...