An Iranian court has reportedly sentenced a McGill-trained scientist to 10 years in jail after she was accused of being an American spy while doing research on cheetahs.
The sentence comes as Iran has all but shut down the internet in the country amid nationwide protests over fuel prices. Amnesty International says Iranian security forces have killed more than 100 demonstrators.
Iranian-born Niloufar Bayani, who graduated from McGill University with a biology degree in 2009, was among eight researchers arrested in January 2018. They worked for the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, an Iranian environmental organization.
Human rights groups and relatives of the detained conservationists this week reported that six of them had been sentenced to between six and 10 years, with Bayani among those to receive the harshest sentence.
Bayani has also been ordered to repay the salary she received from the United Nations for the five years she worked for its environment program.
“After 20 months of detention, Niloufar has been sentenced to 10 years in prison without even knowing why she is being accused of collaborating with a hostile government,” Tara Sepehri Far, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, told the Montreal Gazette.
“Nothing in the case of her and her colleagues has resembled anything we know of due process rights and fair trial standards from day one.”
Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, denounced the scientists’ “unlawful arrest, their cruel and inhuman treatment in prolonged solitary confinement, the denial of their due process rights, and their sham convictions and sentencing, without evidence or regard for the requirements of law.”
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards suggested the cheetah research was a pretext for spying. Critics said the arrests were part of an effort by the repressive regime to silence non-governmental organizations.
Anthropologist Jane Goodall was among 350 conservationists, scholars and researchers from 70 countries standing by the environmentalists’ innocence.
In January, on the first day of her trial, Bayani defiantly told the court she had been tortured and forced to confess to what she called trumped-up charges, according to reports by human rights groups.
Human Rights Watch said Bayani, who is in her early 30s, also denounced her treatment a second time during her trial. A source told the group that Bayani said: “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.”
Bayani originally was charged with “sowing corruption on Earth,” a charge that could have resulted in the death penalty. That charge was dropped.
Bayani was tracking cheetahs using camera traps, motion-activated devices collecting data about the species, of which fewer than 50 remain, all in Iran.
“They’re field ecologists, and in this particular case they were trying to track a declining species,” Anthony Ricciardi, a McGill biologist for whom Bayani was a research assistant, said in an interview last year.
“If you want to find something rare you can’t sit there all day waiting for the animal to come by, and it might be spooked by you. So you set up cameras instead.”
The Canadian government, which cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 2012, has said it was “deeply concerned” about Bayani’s detention.
Among those arrested with Bayani was Kavous Seyed-Emami, the Iranian-Canadian director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation. He died in jail three weeks later under suspicious circumstances.