DUBAI – Six conservationists working to save the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah have been sentenced to prison on internationally criticized espionage charges in Iran, activists said Thursday, even as protests and unrest continue in parts of the country amid a government-imposed internet shutdown.
The case against members of the nonprofit Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation show how spying charges and convictions can be levied against dual nationals and those with Western ties in Iran in closed-door trials before its Revolutionary Court.
News of the cases comes after demonstrations against government-set gasoline prices rising turned violent in Iran, killing at least 106 people, according to Amnesty International.
Iran disputes that figure without offering its own and has turned off the internet across the country, making it difficult to reach those where protests go on. A U.N. office earlier said it feared the unrest may have killed “a significant number of people.”
The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran said Thursday that the convicted conservationists face six to 10 years in prison for “contacts with the U.S. enemy state.” Two others have yet to hear verdicts, it said.
The conservationists found themselves arrested over their use of camera traps to track the cheetahs, a common tool of wildlife experts.
One of the conservationists, Iranian-Canadian citizen Kavous Seyed Emami, died in disputed circumstances in prison in February 2018 awaiting trial. His widow then was blocked from flying out of Iran, but later made it out.
Iran's Revolutionary Court typically handles espionage cases and others involving smuggling, blasphemy and attempts to overthrow the country’s Islamic government. Westerners and Iranian dual nationals often find themselves tried and convicted in closed-door trials in these courts, only later to be used as bargaining chips in negotiations.
“The only crimes that have been committed in relation to the conservationists are their unlawful arrest, their cruel and inhuman treatment in prolonged solitary confinement, the denial of their due process rights, and their sham convictions and sentencing, without evidence or regard for the requirements of law,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the center’s executive director.
Iranian state media and judiciary officials did not immediately comment on the verdicts, which is common in Revolutionary Court cases. The semiofficial Fars news agency, close to the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, carried a short story acknowledging the verdicts.
Meanwhile, Abolhassan Firoozabadi, the secretary of Iran's Supreme Cyberspace Council, told journalists that he believed the internet would be turned on “within the next two days.” He said the council would discuss the matter at its meeting Thursday. The government shut down the internet last Saturday.
“The country’s security authorities will make the final decision and rest assured that as soon as the conditions are right, the disruptions will be removed and we will resume our previous status,” he said.
Authorities restored internet service Thursday in Iran’s Hormozgan province, home to the port city of Bandar Abbas, the state-run IRNA news agency report. Semiofficial news agencies said service was being restored in other parts of the country on Thursday afternoon, something the internet watchdog NetBlocks also noted.
“At the current time national connectivity has risen further to 10%,” NetBlocks said in a tweet.
President Donald Trump, whose unilateral withdrawal of America from Iran’s nuclear deal exacerbated Iran’s economic woes, criticized the internet shutdown in tweets Thursday night.
“Iran has become so unstable that the regime has shut down their entire Internet System so that the Great Iranian people cannot talk about the tremendous violence taking place within the country,” Trump wrote. “They want ZERO transparency, thinking the world will not find out the death and tragedy that the Iranian Regime is causing!”
In a statement from Brussels, the European Union also called on Iran to “ensure the free flow of information and access to the internet.”
“Any violence is unacceptable,” the EU said. “The rights to freedom of expression and assembly must be guaranteed.”
Associated Press writer Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.