Leading academics in Iran have written to the country’s president, Hassan Rouhani, to demand answers after officials said a renowned environmentalist had killed himself in prison.
Officials told the family of Kavous Seyed Emami, the 63-year-old founder of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, that he had killed himself two weeks after he was arrested – a claim that has been met with widespread scepticism.
“The news of the death of Dr Kavous Seyed Emami has astounded and shocked the scientific community and the environmental activists of the country,” four academic societies wrote in an open letter to Rouhani.
In addition to being a well-known professor, a distinguished scientist and war veteran … he was a noble and ethical human being,” the letter said. “The news and rumours related to his arrest and death are not believable.”
Tehran’s chief prosecutor said at the weekend that Emami was part of a group of environmental activists arrested on suspicion of espionage.
Iran has stepped up a crackdown on environmental activists after protests over economic and political grievances spread to as many as 80 cities earlier this year. Many believe that environmental issues, such as pollution, water scarcity and drying up of wetlands are an underlying factor behind the recent upwelling of public discontent.
“This person was one of the accused and given he knew there is a torrent of confessions against him and he confessed himself, unfortunately he committed suicide in prison,” the prosecutor Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi said on Sunday, according to Ilna news agency.
The academics’ letter was published on Sunday by four leading associations in areas of political science, sociology, peace studies and cultural studies, which include professors from Iran’s top universities.
They wrote: “Our minimum expectation is that you take immediate and effective action to seriously investigate the case … and make the institutions involved in this painful loss accountable.”
Emami, an Iranian-Canadian dual national, was a respected activist and professor at Imam Sadegh University. He received a PhD in sociology from the University of Oregon in 1991 before returning to Iran to dedicate his life to environmental activism.
- “The news of my father’s passing is impossible to fathom,” his son, Ramin Seyed Emami, a popular singer, wrote on Instagram. Ramin said his father had been arrested on 24 January, and that the family was told of his death on Friday. “They say he committed suicide. I still can’t believe this.”
- Ramin said his father was a patriot who had volunteered to defend his country during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. He was injured by an artillery shell in the city of Khoramshahr and taken to Tehran for medical treatment within five months of the war breaking out.
The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) said Emami’s family were under pressure to immediately bury him and forgo an independent autopsy.
“Claims that Seyed Emami’s death was a suicide have no credibility whatsoever. This is a prison system out of control and a judiciary that is actively colluding in a massive cover-up,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the CHRI’s executive director.
The judiciary’s spokesman, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei’i, said on Monday that Emami’s death was under investigation. An anonymous relative was quoted by CHRI as saying: “You cannot be both the accused and the investigator and expect people to believe your conclusion.”
Seven other environmental activists and journalists – Amir-Hossein Khaleghi, Houman Jowkar, Morad Tahbaz, Niloufar Bayani, Sepideh Kashani, Taher Ghadirian and Sam Rajabi, are still believed to be under arrest.