Four Iranian environmentalists convicted on trumped-up charges of acting against national security and spying for the United States and Israel have been “pardoned” and freed from prison.

Niloufar Bayani and Houman Jowkar’s release from Tehran’s Evin Prison Monday was followed by the release of two others, Sepideh Kashani and Taher Ghadiriyan, on Tuesday.

However, many Iranians expressed outrage on social media that these individuals were jailed and tortured for six years as spies and then pardoned. If they were spies, why the government released them, they asked.

In total eight members of the Persian World Heritage Foundation (PWHF) -- were arrested by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Intelligence Organization (SAS) during moderate President Hasan Rouhani’s second term in January and February 2018.

Three of the remaining members of the group – Sam Rajabi, Amir-Hossein Khaleghi and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh – had been released from prison before after serving their sentences. Another member, Morad Tahbaz, a co-founder of PWHF who had the citizenship of both the United States and Britain besides his Iranian citizenship, was believed to be held hostage as leverage in deals with the US. He was freed during a prisoner exchange with the United States in September 2023.

Sepideh Kashani after release from prison in Tehran (April 2024)

PWHF, an NGO dedicated to the conservation of wildlife in Iran, was founded by Iranian-Canadian Professor Kavous Seyed-Emami, who was also arrested. Two weeks after his arrest, however, his family was told he had committed suicide in his cell at the age of 63.

Tehran Prosecutor Jafari-Dolatabadi in February 2018 claimed the detainees had collected sensitive information on Iran's missile bases for the CIA and Mossad under the guise of environmental conservation activities such as installation of wildlife monitoring cameras. Based on interrogations by SAS, they were accused of espionage.

“But considering the existence of satellites and spying systems around Iran and in its skies the question arises as to why anyone would use cameras for spying. What danger or problems could that cause!?” a conservative newspaper, Farhikhtegan, asked after the announcement that the environmentalists were pardoned.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, members of the European Parliament, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International repeatedly urged Iran to release the environmentalists from prison at the time.

Vice-President and Head of the Department of Environment, Isa Kalantari, said at the time that his department and the Intelligence Ministry had investigated the matter and had found no evidence of spying in the activities of the environmentalists.

Speaking to Iran International after Bayani and Jowkar’s release from prison Monday, Kaveh Madani, Director of the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, also attributed the IRGC’s arrest of the environmentalists to the conflicts between the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization and the Ministry of Intelligence and the former’s schemes against officials of the Rouhani administration.

“It is not easy to explain why they are being freed at this particular time,” Madani added.

At least five of the environmentalists, who were sentenced from four to ten-years in prison in February 2020 after secret trials, went on hunger strike during their imprisonment. Most of them were held in complete isolation, for as long as nine months in Bayani’s case. They often did not even have access to their court-appointed attorneys.

The environmentalists were tortured to agree to ‘confessions’ scripted by interrogators. Two of the accused – Tahbaz and Bayani – made confessions against themselves and others but both retracted their confessions later.

In letters smuggled out of prison Bayani alleged psychological torture including threats of rape. Her letters, first made public by the BBC’s Persian Service, included a claim she was shown torture equipment and syringes that interrogators said could paralyze or kill her.

The lawyer representing Kashani, said his client had faced similar treatment. Kashani’s husband and co-defendant Houman Jowkar, was said to have been brutally beaten and then paraded in front of her covered in blood. Jowkar sustained serious injuries, including a broken head and injuries to his face when his glasses were smashed onto his face.

A source who spoke to Iran International in June 2022 said IRGC interrogators had secretly filmed Tara Tahbaz, the daughter of Morad Tahbaz, at a café in New York and shown it to him in prison in 2018, threatening to kill Tara if her father did not agree to accept the scripted confessions. They also contacted Tara and made threats against her.

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