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Iran Pardons 4 Environmental Activists for Eid al-Fitr, Lawyer Says

WorldMiddle EastIran Pardons 4 Environmental Activists for Eid al-Fitr, Lawyer Says

Iran has pardoned and begun freeing four environmental activists who spent several years in prison on espionage charges, Iranian state media said on Monday. The pardons were granted to commemorate Eid al-Fitr, the Islamic holiday celebrated at the end of Ramadan, according to their lawyer.

Iran has a tradition of freeing prisoners, but not political ones, around religious holidays. The releases came months after high-stakes negotiations with the United States led to the freeing of a prominent Iranian American wildlife conservationist, Morad Tahbaz, and four others in exchange for the unfreezing of billions in Iranian assets by the United States.

The four activists pardoned this week, Niloufar Bayani, Sepideh Kashani, Taher Qadirian and Houman Jokar, were among eight environmentalists arrested in the winter of 2018 on charges of espionage and collaborating with Iran’s enemies — charges they have vehemently denied. They were later transferred to Iran’s notorious Evin prison.

Ms. Bayani and Mr. Jokar were freed on Monday, according to images posted by their families on social media. A lawyer for the activists, Hojjat Kermani, said he expected the other two to be freed at a later time.

On Monday, Kaveh Madani, Iran’s former No. 2 environmental official who is now the director of the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, said in a post on the social media platform X: “Our long nightmare has ended. The remaining imprisoned Iranian Environmentalists will be finally released. This is a great day for Iran’s environment.”

Amid sporadic nationwide protests against the ruling Islamic government, environmentalists have moved into the regime’s cross hairs, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps often accusing them of spying for Western governments. Also in 2018, some environmentalists criticized the ruling clerics for long-term mismanagement of water supplies and corruption.

Mr. Madani had been the deputy head of the Department of the Environment when he was briefly detained and interrogated that year after facing threats from government hard-liners. Mr. Madani, an American-educated academic, left Iran afterward. He had been recruited by the president at the time, Hassan Rouhani, as a sign that the country was ready to welcome back expatriate Iranians.

But amid a bitter feud between Mr. Rouhani and hard-line officials, the detention of Mr. Madani was seen by analysts at the time as an attempt to publicly humiliate and undermine Mr. Rouhani. Iran’s intelligence apparatus has systematically cracked down on nongovernmental organizations and has viewed with suspicion any kind of activism, including demands for women’s rights and action against climate change.

Iran has also long been accused of detaining and using dual Iranian nationals for political gain. In January 2018, Kavous Seyed Emami, an Iranian Canadian professor who was a founder of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, Iran’s most prominent nongovernmental organization focused on the environment, was arrested and accused of spying.

Mr. Seyed Emami was detained by intelligence agents as part of a roundup of the environmental activists on charges of “contacts with the U.S. government.” Among them was Mr. Tahbaz, an Iranian American businessman who also has British citizenship. A wildlife conservationist, he co-founded the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation.

A month later, members of Mr. Seyed Emami’s family said the Iranian authorities had informed them he had died by suicide in a prison in Tehran — a conclusion rejected by many prominent Iranians.

In September 2023, Mr. Tahbaz, who had been sentenced to 10 years in prison, was among five detained Iranian Americans allowed to leave the country under an agreement with the United States to dismiss the charges in return for the unfreezing of $6 billion in Iranian assets.

The lawyer for the activists pardoned this week, Mr. Kermani, told Iranian news outlets that they had received the news on Sunday. He said the pardons had been made as part of a wider amnesty involving more than 2,100 convicts. Mr. Kermani could not be reached for comment, and the wider release could not be immediately confirmed.

Mr. Jokar and Mr. Qadirian had been sentenced to eight years in prison, of which they had already served six, Mr. Kermani told local news outlets. Ms. Bayani had four years left on her prison sentence, and Ms. Kashani had less than a month left, he said.

Asked whether the releases had been conditional, Mr. Kermani told Khabar Online, “The pardon can be in full or in the form of a reduction in the sentence, which we hope will include all the remaining imprisonment of these four people.”

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