After state TV smear, dead Iranian detainee’s family fights on

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By Golnaz Esfandiari, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Critics have complained for years of the appearance of cooperation between Iran’s state-controlled television and its hard-line security structures, citing smears against activists and the broadcast of prisoner confessions thought to have been extracted under duress.

But lawyers for the family of a devoted Canadian-Iranian ecological activist and father who died in an Iranian jail recently are going a step further.

Kavous Seyed Emami was a U.S.-trained scholar who had been managing director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation. / AFP

They have vowed to file a formal judicial complaint against the producers of an “insulting” state TV show that “not only hurt the feelings of the grieving family but also the feelings of the great majority of the Iranian people.”

The seven-minute report aired two days after the burial outside Tehran on February 13 of 64-year-old Kavous Seyed Emami, who authorities say committed suicide after his detention along with six fellow environmentalists for alleged espionage.

“The picture painted by the malicious producers of this film is completely against the humble and modest character of this great noble man, who made efforts to be alongside youths and encourage them to protect the country’s environmental wealth on the basis of national and ethical foundations,” the lawyers said in a statement issued earlier this week.

The statement said that the report “is so unprofessional that it actually works against its producers.”

Suicide ‘Impossible’

The state TV “documentary” alleged that Seyed Emami killed himself “in a fully professional manner” after being confronted with denunciations from colleagues and other evidence of his spying activities.

The official account of his death has been questioned by rights groups and family members including his adult sons, dual citizens who have chosen to remain in Iran despite the risk of persecution for speaking out about the case.

A Canadian-Iranian professor who spent months detained in the same facility as Seyed Emami over spying accusations but now lives in Canada was quoted as saying “it is absolutely impossible to kill yourself…because there is nothing there.”

Even Iranian President Hassan Rohani has formed an investigative committee to probe recent deaths in custody.

No Specific Evidence

The Iranian TV program portrayed Seyed Emami, the managing director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation and a lecturer in sociology in Tehran, as a spy who provided foreign intelligence services with information about Iranian military sites and worked to create an environmental crisis in the country.

It offered no specific evidence to back the claims.

It used images from Seyed Emami’s private life that included one of him dancing and another where he is playing with his pet dogs — subtly divisive activities because both are frowned on by conservatives in clerically dominated Iranian society and could lead some Iranians to conclude that he was neither a good Muslim nor a model citizen.

At one point, the TV report shows a purported e-mail exchange between Seyed Emami and a CIA intelligence officer in which the environmentalist warns against travel to Iran due to U.S.-Iranian tensions.

Parliamentarians Dispute Claims

There has also been criticism of the program from Iranian lawmakers.

“State television did not respect Islamic ethics, while it added to the doubts,” lawmaker Gholamali Jafarzadeh Imenabadi said on February 21, according to the semiofficial ILNA news agency. “The question comes to mind is why state television allows itself to show the most private photos of [Seyed Emami] but fails to provide strong evidence regarding its claims about his activities and the activities of his colleagues?”

“The fact that someone was at a party or dressed in a certain way is not proof of espionage,” Jafarzadeh Imenabadi added. “In addition, these are private issues, and airing that film after a person’s death and while his relatives and lawyers can’t defend him on state TV is not a moral and Islamic thing to do.”

The documentary claimed that Seyed Emami and his colleagues monitored Iran’s sensitive military sites under the cover of environmental activities: “Wherever there were military and security centers, their environmental research was there.”

It added: “First they would obtain information about the location of these centers from intelligence services and satellites, then for greater monitoring they would focus their environmentalism near those locations.”

Echoing other officials’ claims, it said cameras that Seyed Emami’s NGO installed to monitor endangered species were in fact used to photograph missile activities, adding that the information was then transferred to foreign intelligence services.

Seyed Emami’s son Ramin disputed such a charge to The New York Times on February 22, saying trip cameras his father’s group used had a range of only about 25 meters, were widely available, and were unsuitable for spying on any missile program.

Lawmaker Mahmud Sadeghi said on Twitter that the television report suggested that those behind it lack solid evidence.

“Linking environmental work to #transgenic products and drought, invading people’s #privacy and referring to two e-mails that have nothing to do with the claims made in the [state TV] report titled #RestrictedAreas, demonstrate that the producers and those who commissioned the report have empty hands,” Sadeghi wrote on Twitter on February 17.

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