There are telltale signs that the Iranian government isn’t being exactly forthcoming about the death of Iranian-Canadian environmental activist and professor Kavous Seyed-Emami in a Tehran prison, human rights groups say.
Seyed-Emami’s son, Raam, announced on Saturday that his father, a Tehran-based sociology professor who was also the managing director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, had died in prison.
He was imprisoned in late January, with Iranian authorities claiming that he was gathering classified information under the guise of carrying out environmental and scientific work.
Tehran’s chief prosecutor claimed that Seyed-Emami committed suicide in prison because he learned of new confessions being made against him, the Iranian Labour News Agency reported.
Meanwhile, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard claimed to have a video purporting to show Seyed-Emami preparing to commit suicide, according to the Iranian Student News Agency.
But rights groups say Iran has a history of dubiously ruling prison deaths as suicides.
Seyed-Emami’s death marks the third case of alleged suicide in prison reported by Iranian authorities in 2018 alone, according to Human Rights Watch. At least two such deaths were reported in early January, in the wake of widespread anti-government protests in the country.
The group said Seyed-Emami’s wife was summoned to Tehran’s Evin Prison on Friday, Feb. 9 and interrogated for four hours, before being told that her husband had committed suicide.
“Iranian judicial authorities think they can get away with claiming that Seyed-Emami, a well-known professor, simply committed suicide while being detained in one of the highest-security wards of Evin prison,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Iranian judiciary long ago lost its credibility after failing to investigate repeated incidents of torture and mistreatment in detention.”
Those suspicions were echoed by the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
“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 coverup,” said the group’s executive director, Hadi Ghaemi. “The authorities’ remarks about the case from start to finish and the pressure they are putting on the family leaves no doubt that there is a concerted state coverup.”
Authorities have reportedly been pressuring Seyed-Emami’s family to bury him in a private funeral, and have been resisting the family’s calls for an independent autopsy to be conducted.
“You cannot be both the accused and the investigator and expect people to believe your conclusion,” a relative of Seyed-Emami’s told CHRI.
It has also claimed that the family has been placed under police surveillance and that authorities are using intimidation tactics to discourage them from speaking publicly about the case.
Seyed-Emami’s son tweeted that his father’s funeral was scheduled for Tuesday, but he didn’t respond to Global News’ request for comment.
Trevor Harrison, a sociology professor at the University of Lethbridge who knew Seyed-Emami, said he emailed him in January to ask if he was OK in the wake of unrest in Iran.
“He wrote back and said, ‘yes I’m fine,'” Harrison told Global News. “He said there’s always … excitement going on here, but he didn’t indicate any particular concern or threat to himself.”
CHRI is asking Canada to push for a UN investigation into Seyed-Emami’s death.
The Canadian government says it’s monitoring the situation and consular officials are working with the family — but from Turkey, because Canada doesn’t have an embassy in Iran, having cut off diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic in 2015.
— With files from Global National reporter Mike Armstrong
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