The Iranian government has played up its work to protect the endangered Asiatic cheetah, which once roamed from Egypt to India but now only stalks a slice of Iranian desert. The government has put the cat’s image on World Cup jerseys and broadcast rare sightings on state media. And for a decade, it's been working with a group of conservationists who are devoted to tracking the animals with camera traps.
But rumors — and fearmongering — put those conservationists where so many academics in Iran have ended up: in jail, accused of using those cameras not to spy on cheetahs but to spy for a foreign government.
In early 2018, researchers with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation were arrested and jailed, including lead researcher Kavous Seyed-Emami. A few weeks later he was found dead in detention. The eight colleagues who were arrested with him have now spent over 500 days in Iran’s notorious Evin prison. Four of the group, accused of “sowing corruption on earth”, could be sentenced to death.
The eight academics on trial are the victims of a mounting political paranoia that’s criminalizing Iranians with ties to the West, stifling science and research, and ultimately deepening Iran’s environmental crises.
VICE News Tonight spoke with the former deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment and a Human Rights Watch researcher to learn how these celebrated big-cat conservationists found themselves on death row.
This segment originally aired Sept. 5, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.