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Iran has charged environmentalists with spying after they filmed a cheetah

Former McGill student Niloufar Bayani is among those arrested.
Former Montreal McGill student Niloufar Bayani is among those detained since January. 

More than 300 conservationists, including Jane Goodall, are appealing to Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to free a group of environmentalists who have been charged with spying after they used cameras to monitor an endangered cheetah.

Spying carries a possible penalty of death.

Nine environmentalists with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, including former Montreal McGill student Niloufar Bayani, were arrested in January and detained in Iran’s notoriously harsh Evin Prison. One of them, Iranian Canadian Seyed Emami, died in jail.


In February, a Tehran prosecutor claimed they were using cameras to “monitor the country’s missile activities” while using conservation as a front, according to CBS. Now, Iran has charged five of the conservationists, including Bayani, with “sowing corruption on earth” — which amounts to spying.

In a new letter from conservationists, colleagues say the detained were simply using camera traps to record the critically-endangered Asiatic cheetah.

“Camera traps are now a standard tool for wildlife monitoring, being deployed for that purpose in many regions around the world,” the letter states. “Camera traps deliver invaluable, first-hand evidence on the presence of endangered species when they approach within a few metres.”

“We are convinced that their work and research had no second means or objectives,” the letter continues. “Given the general international political backdrop and sometimes tense relationships between countries, we fully understand the current concerns. We are horrified about the thought that the neutral field of conservation could ever be used to pursue political objectives. We as a community strongly condemn that, and we are convinced our colleagues had no such part.”

The letter urges a fair evaluation of evidence, and insists the environmentalists are innocent of the charges. Colleagues of the environmentalists also offer to provide witness testimony and evidence of their innocence.


According to Human Rights Watch, none of the environmentalists have access to lawyers of their choice, and no trial date has been set.

Following news of the charges against Bayani, her friends and colleagues have shared warm memories of her on social media, calling for her release.

In a Twitter thread, journalist Charles Pellegrin, said of his former neighbour, “I was immediately impressed by the boundless energy with which she approached everything, whether it was in her studies in environmental science or in her ability to defeat anyone that faced her in a dance-off.

“She radiates happiness and positivity and I frequently catch myself thinking of her when I wonder how best to lead my own life.”

In a statement to VICE News, Global Affairs Canada said it is aware of Bayani's detention and is "deeply concerned."

"Our government is committed to holding Iran to account for its violations of human and democratic rights and our diplomatic engagement with Iran since then has tackled these issues head-on," a Global Affairs spokesperson told VICE News. "That is why Canada led a resolution at the UN earlier this month calling on Iran to comply with its international human rights obligations."

Canada’s foreign minister Chrystia Freeland commented on the situation in February after Emami died in jail. “We are seriously concerned by the situation surrounding the detention and death of Mr. Seyed Emami,” she said in a statement. “We expect the Government of Iran to provide information and answers into the circumstances surrounding this tragedy. We will continue to use every means at Canada’s disposal to seek further information.”

Cover imaged of detained environmentalists by Human Rights Watch.