Ten years ago, Niloufar Bayani spent long day summer days on a boat in the St. Lawrence River near Montreal, researching invasive species — the zebra mussel and the round goby, a bottom-dwelling fish.

Today, Bayani is sitting in Iran’s notorious Evin prison facing an espionage charge that carries a death sentence.

She was arrested by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards 10 months ago with eight other environmental activists tracking the endangered Asiatic cheetah.

“I’m worried about her safety,” said Anthony Ricciardi, a McGill University biologist for whom Bayani was a research assistant.

The Canadian government says it is “deeply concerned” about Bayani’s detention.

The arrests have been denounced by scientists, environmentalists and human rights activists. Anthropologist Jane Goodall is among 350 conservations, scholars and researchers from 70 countries standing by the environmentalists’ innocence and calling for them to receive “fair and just” treatment.

Several of Bayani’s friends have taken to Twitter to spread the word about her imprisonment and demand her release.

Arrested with Bayani, Kavous Seyed-Emami, the 63-year-old Iranian-Canadian head of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation for which Bayani works, died three weeks later under suspicious circumstances in Evin prison. Officials claimed it was suicide but Seyed-Emami’s family and United Nations officials want an independent investigation.

Iranian-born Bayani, who graduated from McGill with a biology degree in 2009, and the other arrested were 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,” said Ricciardi of McGill’s School of Environment. “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 Revolutionary Guards has suggested the cheetah research was a pretext for spying for the United States and Israel. But critics say the arrests may be part of an effort to dissuade non-governmental organizations as the environment becomes a contentious political issue in Iran.

In March, Iranian Vice-President Isa Kalantari suggested the environmentalists should be released since there was no evidence of espionage. But in July, the Revolutionary Guards, a force that operates independently of the government, accused Bayani and four others arrested with her of “sowing corruption on earth,” punishable by death. No evidence has been cited.

“Even the government of Iran admits there’s no evidence of spying,” Ricciardi said. “And I’m not even sure the Revolutionary Guards believe it but if you want to keep people with cameras away you make up a story.

“Regardless of whether these people actually believe this crazy thing or they’re shamelessly doing it and putting people’s lives at risk for their own purposes, it provides another example of the risk environmental scientists are faced with when working abroad in certain countries.”

Ricciardi said Bayani had all the makings of an ideal field researcher when she was at McGill: “She was the kind of person you want out there — careful, smart, trustworthy.”

He said Bayani “must have known some of the risks (or working in Iran) but she did it anyway. That’s courage. From what I’ve seen of her here, I’m not surprised.”

He wants McGill to take a stand in support of Bayani.

On Monday, university spokesperson Chris Chipello said: “McGill is aware of the situation and has been in contact with the Canadian authorities.”

After graduating from McGill, Bayani obtained a master’s degree in conservation biology at Columbia University. She went on to work for the United Nations Environment Program in Geneva before returning to Tehran to join the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation in 2017.

Bayani isn’t the first prisoner at Evin with a Montreal connection.

In 2003, Montreal photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, a dual Canadian-Iranian citizen, was imprisoned at Evin after taking photographs outside the prison and died there, of blunt trauma to the head. Her autopsy later revealed that she had been raped and tortured.

After being accused of “dabbling in feminism and security matters,” Concordia University anthropologist Homa Hoodfar was held at Evin for 112 days, during which she was confined to a tiny cell without a bathroom, interrogated for hours on end, and forced to endure countless sleepless nights in a brightly lit cell. Hoodfar was released in 2016.

Canada cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 2012.

After Seyed-Emami’s death, Canada was criticized for not doing enough to hold Iran to account.

On Friday, Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Richard Walker said the Canadian government “is deeply concerned” about Bayani’s detention and is “committed to holding Iran to account for its violations of human and democratic rights.”

Last month, the Canadian government led a United Nations resolution calling on Iran to comply with its international human rights obligations. “Canada urges the Iranian regime to address the grave human rights concerns raised in this resolution,” Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said at the time.

Human Rights Watch has reported that Bayani and the other environmentalists have not been allowed access to lawyers of their choice and no trial date has been set.

In March, the Centre for Human Rights in Iran reported that Bayani’s parents were called to the prison to see their daughter. They “saw her just for a moment from a distance,” the centre said. “Niloufar waved to them and left.”

It’s unclear if her family has been allowed to see her since.

The families of the eight imprisoned environmentalists have implored Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, to release them.

In a letter sent to Khamenei in September, the families said: “We are wholeheartedly certain that our children have not committed the slightest wrongdoing, let alone the terrible crimes they have been accused of.”

Source » montrealgazette