Iranian Conservationists Sent to Prison Amid Protests

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Six conservationists working to save the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah have been sentenced to prison on internationally criticized espionage charges in Iran, as protests and unrest continue 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 price hikes turned violent in Iran, killing at least 106 people, according to Amnesty International.

Protesters burned this building in Tehran, protesting a gasoline price hike, and violence broke out in 100 cities and towns. (AP photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Iran disputes that figure, without offering its own, and has turned off the internet across the country, making it difficult to reach those where protests go on. A U.N. office 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.

The conservationists were arrested for 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 was blocked from flying out of Iran, but later escaped.

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, 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 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.

Abolhassan Firoozabadi, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme Cyberspace Council, said that he believed the internet would be turned on “within the next two days.” He said the council would discuss the matter at its meeting Thursday. The government shut down the internet last Saturday.

“The country’s security authorities will make the final decision and rest assured that as soon as the conditions are right the disruptions will be removed and we will resume our previous status,” he said.

In a statement from Brussels, the European Union called on Iran to “ensure the free flow of information and access to the internet.”

“Any violence is unacceptable,” the EU said. “The rights to freedom of expression and assembly must be guaranteed.”

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