Iran Sentences Eight Environmentalists

On February 18, an Iranian revolutionary court finalized the sentences of eight environmental activists by upholding tough prison terms for “cooperating with the hostile state of the U.S.” and “collusion to act against national security.” One of the eight is Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian who also holds U.S. and British citizenship. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, the longest term. Other activists received sentences ranging from four to 10 years, as follows:

  • Niloufar Bayani: 10 Years
  • Taher Ghadirian: 8 Years
  • Houman Jowkar: 8 Years
  • Amir Hossein Khaleghi: 6 Years
  • Sam Rajabi: 6 Years
  • Sepideh Kashani: 6 Years
  • Abdolreza Kouhpayeh: 4 Years

A ninth environmentalist, Kavous Seyed Emami, died in detention in 2018.

In 2018, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, Tehran’s chief prosecutor, claimed that the activists were “seeking proximity to military sites with the cover of the environmental projects and obtaining military information from them.” He said that the group was charged with national security violations, including “sowing corruption on earth,” a crime which is punishable by death. The charge was later reduced to “collaborating with the enemy states of the U.S. and Israel to spy in favor of CIA and MOSAD.”

All of the conservationists denied the charges. International human rights groups condemned the verdict. “Iran’s revolutionary courts are ‘revolutionary’ only in their ability to fabricate charges,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Two years on, there’s still not a shred of evidence against these environmental experts, and the authorities should release them immediately.”

The Center for Human Rights in Iran also criticized Iran’s judiciary. “These sentences followed sham prosecutions that proceeded without any evidence of wrongdoing and were based on false ‘confessions’ extracted under torture,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the organization’s executive director. “The appeal court’s decision to uphold these sentences makes a mockery of the Iranian justice system.”


The following is a detailed timeline of the environmentalists’ case.



Jan. 24-25: The IRGC’s Intelligence Organization arrested nine environmentalists from the Tehran-based Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving Iran’s biodiversity. The group had been working on a project to track Iran’s endangered Asiatic cheetah population using low-resolution cameras. They were accused of gathering intelligence on secretive missile launch sites for U.S. and Israeli intelligence organizations. The activists were held at Evin Prison in Tehran.

Feb. 10: The family of Kavous Seyed Emami, an Iranian-Canadian national, announced that he had died in detention under suspicious circumstances. Iranian authorities told the family that he had committed suicide in prison, but they did not investigate his death. Maryam Mombeini, Emami’s wife, was interrogated by IRGC agents and banned from leaving Iran until October 2019.  

May 22: Issa Kalantari, the head of Iran’s Environmental Institution, announced that the government had formed a committee to investigate the charges; it included the ministers of intelligence, interior and justice. The committee reportedly concluded that there was no evidence that the environmentalists had been involved in espionage.

July 31: The families of the eight detainees published an open letter to Iranian officials demanding a fair trial and more transparency in the judicial process. They said that their relatives were refused access to lawyers.  

Oct. 24: Iran’s judiciary officially charged the environmentalists with national security charges. Four of the defendants--Niloufar Bayani, Houman Jowkar, Taher Ghadirian and Morad Tahbaz--were charged with “sowing corruption on earth,” punishable by death. Sepideh Kashani, Amirhossein Khaleghi and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh were charged with espionage and faced up to 10 years in prison. Sam Rajabi was charged with “co-operating with hostile states against the Islamic Republic” and “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security.” He faced up to 11 years in prison.

Erik Solheim, head of the U.N. Environment Programme, condemned the charges. “This sends an extremely ominous message to Iran’s environmentalist community who are striving to protect the Islamic Republic’s unique environment," he said

Oct. 26: Michael Page, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East program, charged that Iran’s judiciary “appears determined to pursue serious charges against these environmental activists no matter how ridiculous the allegations of wrongdoing are and despite the continuing denial of the defendants’ right to see a lawyer of their choice.”

Nov. 12: More than 1,000 Iranian civil society activists penned a letter to Sadeq Larijani, Iran’s judiciary chief, urging him to resolve “ambiguities” in the case and ensure a fair trial for the conservationists.

Nov. 28: More than 350 renowned foreign scientists, including primatologist Jane Goodall, signed an open letter to Iranian officials calling for a fair and just evaluation of the evidence, access to lawyers of their choice and a transparent trial. The experts defended the research methods of the cheetah conservationists in their letter addressed to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Judiciary Chief Larijani. They said that motion sensor cameras were an “essential tool in providing a critical basis for both science and conservation strategies to save species from extinction.”



Jan. 30: The closed-door trial began at the Revolutionary Court in Tehran. The Iranian government reportedly selected the lawyers to represent the environmentalists. The prosecution’s 300-page indictment was based largely on a forced confession, according to Human Rights Watch. “If you were being threatened with a needle of hallucinogenic drugs [hovering] above your arm, you would also confess to whatever they wanted you to confess,” said Niloufar Bayani, one of the defendants, in court.

Feb. 3: Mahmoud Sadeghi, a member of parliament from Tehran, tweeted that the National Security Council had not found any evidence that the activists were spies.

Feb. 5: Human Rights Watch condemned the court proceedings. “The gravity of due process violations against these activists over the past year, and the recent allegation of torture and forced confessions, has reinforced the reality that the judiciary is a tool of repression and a symbol of injustice,” Page said. “The highest-ranking authorities should immediately investigate this allegation of torture, immediately call for the release of these activists, and end the grave abuses against them.”

Nov. 20: Gholamhossein Esmaili, the judiciary spokesman, announced that the environmentalists were convicted of “collaborating with the enemy state of the United States” and sentenced to prison terms ranging from four to 10 years. Niloufar Bayani was also ordered to “return illicit funds” of $360,000. The activists were allegedly informed of the verdicts in secret without the presence of their lawyers. They were not allowed to read the dossier of evidence against them.



Feb. 18: Iran’s court of appeals upheld the convictions of the wildlife activists for “assembly and collusion to act against national security” and “cooperating with the hostile state of the U.S.”