Iran says a female member of a group of eight conservationists on trial for spying has been absent from the courtroom this week as a prosecutor continued reading charges that rights activists say are bogus.

Iranian state news agency IRNA reported that the female defendant was absent from the third and fourth sessions of the closed-door trial, held in Iran on Tuesday and Wednesday. The report did not name the defendant or cite a reason for her absence. But it said a prosecutor continued reading a more than 300-page-long indictment to the other seven defendants and would complete the process later.

An Iran researcher for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), Tara Sepehri Far, told VOA Persian that her sources named the absent defendant as Niloufar Bayani.

Another U.S.-based group, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), has said much of the indictment is based on forced confessions from Bayani. CHRI has quoted its own source as saying Bayani interrupted the trial’s opening Jan. 30 session several times, accusing investigators of extracting confessions from her under mental and physical duress, and saying she has since retracted those statements.

This image, published by the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran,
This image, published by the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, shows eight Iranian environmentalists who went on trial in Tehran, Jan. 30, 2019, on suspicion of being spies.

Iran’s state-controlled Fars News Agency has referred to the six male and two female defendants as “individuals accused of spying on the country’s military installations.” Besides Bayani, the other conservationists on trial are Taher Ghadirian, Houman Jowkar, Sepideh Kashani, Amir Hossein Khaleghi, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, Sam Rajabi and Morad Tahbaz.

Ninth defendant died

Iran detained the eight defendants in January 2018 along with a ninth member of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, Iranian-Canadian dual national Kavous Seyed Emami, who died in custody the following month in what officials termed a suicide. Family members disputed that assertion and called for further investigation into how Iranian authorities treated him.

International human rights organizations have called on Iran to release the environmentalists and investigate allegations that authorities have mistreated them.

Iran’s former deputy environment chief, Kaveh Madani, in a Jan. 30 interview with VOA Persian, praised the detained members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation as experts in their field with good reputations nationally and internationally.

Madani, an American-educated water management expert now based at Yale University in the U.S., served as deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment from September 2017 until April 2018, when he fled the country under verbal attack from conservatives who also accused him of spying under cover of environmental activism.

A group of 369 international conservation practitioners and scholars have added their names to a November 2018 open letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader, saying they believe the detained Iranian environmentalists are innocent.

“All of the conservationists in question have dedicated their lives to the conservation of wildlife in Iran, including the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah,” the letter said. “We are convinced that their work and research had no second means or objectives.”


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