Among the many thousands of political prisoners in Iran’s jails are seven prominent environmentalists who were arrested in 2018. Former British Council official Aras Amiri spent two and a half years in prison with two of them. She was released last year and is now speaking out for the first time to bring attention to their plight.
Aras Amiri has every reason to look forward to his life.
Since returning to the UK, she has married, moved to Jersey and is now six months pregnant.
But every day, her mind takes her back to Tehran’s Evin Prison – and to those she left behind when she was released.
Like other political prisoners, the former arts manager for the London-based British Council spent time in solitary confinement, where she was threatened, blindfolded and interrogated throughout.
Accused of working against the regime, she received a 10-year sentence after refusing to cooperate with Iranian intelligence, although she was 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 down,” she says. “And it has lasting effects on all of us.”
But it’s not her she wants to talk about.
Mrs. Amiri was detained – along with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – in the women’s ward of Evin along with two environmentalists, Niloufar Bayani and Sepideh Kashani.
“My heart burns for them,” she says. “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 US citizenship – all members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF).
Its director, Kavous Seyed-Emami, of Canadian and Iranian nationality, died under suspicious circumstances while under interrogation shortly after his arrest.
The group had been using cameras to track endangered wild Asiatic cheetahs, but was accused of using its environmental projects as a “cover to collect classified information”.
Although a committee of Iranian ministers concluded that there was no evidence that they were spies, a Revolutionary Court convicted them in 2019 on various national security charges and sentenced them to between six and 10 years in prison.
“Their arrest is part of a broader crackdown on environmentalists in Iran,” says Amiri. “And there is no accountability. The whole court case is a bad joke.”
Best known for her work trying to conserve Asiatic cheetahs, she says they have also worked with Persian leopards, dolphins and turtles 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 all of Iran.”
The UN Environment Programme, where Niloufar Bayani worked as a consultant for several years before joining the PWHF, has called for his release.
Mrs. Amiri says Bayani and Kashani were “cheerful” company in prison despite all they suffered, including two years of solitary confinement.
“They are such generous souls – determined to make life beautiful. We still managed to laugh together. I was so lucky to have stayed with them.”
She describes the psychological pressure put on them during interrogations as “so terrible that it’s hard to even imagine”.
Bayani wrote to the court that she was threatened with sexual assault, was forced to mimic the sounds of wild animals and was shown pictures of Kavous Seyed-Emami’s body and said that she and her colleagues would suffer a similar fate unless they confessed.
In a letter written from prison on the fifth anniversary of her arrest, Kashani said she was interrogated in a room with “blood everywhere” and threatened with hanging. Her interrogators said her husband would die as Seyed-Emami.
Both women were held in the feared section 2A of Evin Prison – controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards – at the same time as Australian academic Kylie Moore Gilbert, who was charged with espionage and sentenced to 10 years before being released in an exchange prison. .
Released in 2020, Ms. Moore-Gilbert dedicated her memoirs of her time in prison to the two women, describing them as “sisters in suffering and injustice” who used to secretly share notes of encouragement and food with her, at great risk to themselves.
“Their love, solidarity and selfless care for me, a foreigner to whom they were owed nothing, was the difference between surviving the mental torture of solitary confinement and succumbing to the deliberate cruelty and degradation of Iran’s prison regime,” she told the BBC.
“The injustice of Nilou and Sepideh’s imprisonment continues to haunt me, and not a day goes by that I don’t think of them and wait for news of their release.”
Aras Amiri met the women when they transferred from 2A to Evin’s general women’s ward.
“They are very much loved by all the prisoners,” she says. “And they really shared with us their love for nature. I just want them to go back to their families, back to nature and protect Iran’s wildlife again.”