Aras Amiri sheds light on plight of jailed Iranian environmentalists

Aras Amiri back in Britain

Aras Amiri says her spirit returns every day to the prison where she was held and the friends she made there

Among the thousands of political prisoners held in Iranian jails, seven leading environmentalists were arrested in 2018. Former British Council employee Aras Amiri spent two and a half years in jail with two of them. She was released last year and is now speaking out for the first time to draw attention to their plight.

Aras Amiri has every reason to look forward in his life.

Since returning to the UK she has married, moved to Jersey and is now six months pregnant.

But every day, her spirit takes her back to Evin prison in Tehran – and those she left behind when she was released.

Like other political prisoners, the London-based former artistic director of the British Council spent time in solitary confinement, where she was threatened, blindfolded and interrogated around the clock.

Accused of working against the regime, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison after refusing to cooperate with Iranian intelligence, although she was eventually acquitted after appealing to Iran’s Supreme Court.

She still has nightmares about her ordeal.

“It’s an experience that breaks a lot of people,” she says. “And it has lasting effects on all of us.”

But it’s not about her that she wants to talk.

Niloufar Bayani (L) is serving a 10-year prison sentence, while Sepideh Kashani (R) was given a six-year sentence

Ms Amiri was detained – along with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – in the women’s wing of Evin with two environmentalists, Niloufar Bayani and Sepideh Kashani.

“My heart burns for them,” she said. “They were my best friends there. And it’s so unfair.”

Bayani and Kashani were arrested in early 2018 along with Kashani’s husband Houman Jokar, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Sam Rajabi, Taher Ghadirian and Morad Tahbaz, who also holds British and American citizenship – all members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF).

Its manager, dual Canadian-Iranian Kavous Seyed-Emami, died in suspicious circumstances while being interrogated shortly after his arrest.

The group had used cameras to track critically endangered wild Asian cheetahs, but were accused of using their environmental projects as a “cover to collect classified information”.

Conservationists have been accused of spying while using cameras to track endangered wild Asian cheetahs

Even though a committee of Iranian ministers concluded there was no evidence they were spies, a revolutionary court found them guilty in 2019 of various national security charges and sentenced them to between six and 10 years. from prison.

“Their arrest is part of a broader crackdown on Iranian environmentalists,” Ms Amiri said. “And there is no accountability. The whole legal process is a dark joke.”

Best known for their work to conserve Asiatic cheetahs, she says they have also worked with Persian leopards, dolphins and tortoises on Qeshm Island, Asiatic bears, as well as migratory birds.

“They have done such important work. Their projects have always been supported by the local people. It is a loss for the whole of Iran.”

The United Nations Environment Programme, where Niloufar Bayani had worked as a consultant for several years before joining the PWHF, called for their release.

Houman Jokar, the husband of Sepideh Kashani, is also in prison, seen here with a sedated Persian leopard

Ms Amiri says Bayani and Kashani were “joyful” company in prison, despite everything they had endured, including two years in solitary confinement.

“They are such giving souls – determined to make life beautiful. We still managed to laugh together. I was very lucky to have been detained with them.”

She describes the psychological pressure placed on them during their interrogations as “so appalling, it’s even hard to imagine”.

Bayani wrote in court that she had been threatened with sexual assault, that she had been forced to imitate the sounds of wild animals and that she had been shown photos of the body of Kavous Seyed-Emami and that she and her colleagues would meet a similar fate unless they confessed.

In a letter written from prison on the fifth anniversary of their arrest, Kashani said she was interrogated in a room with “blood everywhere” and threatened with hanging. Her interrogators said her husband would die like Seyed-Emami.

Aras was held in Evin Prison along with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Niloufar Bayani and Sepideh Kashani

The two women were being held in the dreaded Section 2A of Evin Prison – controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards – along with Australian academic Kylie Moore Gilbert, who was accused of espionage and sentenced to 10 years before his death. to be released into a prisoner. swap.

Released in 2020, Ms Moore-Gilbert dedicated her memoir of her time in prison to the two women, describing them as ‘sisters in suffering and injustice’ who secretly shared notes of encouragement and nourishment with her at large risk to themselves.

“Their love, solidarity and selfless care for me, a stranger to whom they owed nothing, made the difference between surviving the mental torture of solitary confinement and succumbing to the deliberate cruelty and degradation of the prison regime. Iranian,” she told the BBC.

“The injustice of Nilou and Sepideh’s imprisonment continues to torment me, and not a day goes by that I don’t think of them and hope for news of their release.”

Aras Amiri became acquainted with the women when they were transferred from 2A to the Evin Women’s General Wing.

“They are so loved by all the prisoners,” she says. “And they really shared with us the love they have for nature. I just want them to be back with their families, back in nature and back to protect Iranian wildlife again.”