Family demands inquiry into jailed academic’s ‘suicide’

The family of Kavous Seyed Emami, an Iranian-Canadian academic and environmental activist who died in an Iranian jail in early February, has queried the official Iranian version that he committed suicide in jail and is demanding an independent investigation into the case.

This follows a letter from a group of leading Iranian academics to President Hassan Rouhani demanding an explanation after officials said Seyed Emami, a professor of sociology at Imam Sadiq University in Tehran and managing director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, killed himself in prison two weeks after he was arrested on 24 January.

In a statement on 11 February, Tehran’s Chief Prosecutor Abbas Jafari-Dowlatabadi said Seyed Emami committed suicide due to confessions made against him: “This person was one of the accused [environmental activists] and given he knew that there is a torrent of confessions against him and he confessed himself, unfortunately he committed suicide in prison.”

The suicide claim has been met with widespread scepticism, including from Iran’s deputy parliamentary speaker Ali Motahari, who said that, based on a video produced by the military Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, it was not clear whether the professor committed suicide in the prison.

“I believe the explanations regarding Seyed Emami’s death are insufficient and more details are necessary to clarify all aspects of this case,” Motahari told the Iranian Labour News Agency last Monday.

Family response

Seyed Emami’s wife was informed of her husband’s death on 9 February. The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran said the family came under pressure to immediately bury him and forgo an independent autopsy.

Seyed Emami’s son, Ramin Seyed Emami, said in his personal blog published on 14 February that he had visited the coroner’s office in Kahrizak, south of Tehran, in the presence of two lawyers on 12 February. “My brother and I met with a gentleman in the presence of our lawyers for two hours. The lawyers asked to see all documents – including the case file and the closed-circuit video showing the inside of the cell. I was the only member of the family to see the video,” he wrote.

“I won’t speak of the pain of seeing this video, but I will say that nothing in it is conclusive. The actual death is not recorded. The death certificate we received states that the autopsy report is ‘pending’.

“Our family’s wish, first and foremost, is to know why my father was arrested, the details of his interrogation, and to see any files associated with this case,” he said, demanding an independent investigation.

Academics’ letter to Rouhani

This has also been the demand of academics of top universities in a letter earlier this month to President Rouhani signed by leading academic associations in political science, sociology, peace studies and cultural studies.

“The news of the death of Dr Kavous Seyed Emami has astounded and shocked the scientific community and the environmental activists of the country,” the four academic societies wrote. “Our minimum expectation is that you take immediate and effective action to seriously investigate the case … and make the institutions involved in this painful loss accountable.”

Reformist lawmaker Mohammad Reza Tabesh said that the circumstances surrounding Seyed Emami’s death have aroused concern.

“The arrest of a group of environmental activists and holding them for more than 20 days have raised some suspicions,” he told the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency.

Environmentalists targeted

Seyed Emami had been jailed as part of a sweeping government crackdown after protests gripped several cities in December and January. According to reports, a number of environmental activists were detained, as issues such as pollution and water scarcity were raised by protesters during the recent discontent.

Tehran Chief Prosecutor Dowlatabadi claimed Seyed Emami was one of several former and current Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation members arrested because they had engaged in “espionage under the guise of research”.

Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, published a report claiming Seyed Emami “admitted handing over a large volume of classified information to foreign intelligence services”.

Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Mohseni Eje’i said last week that Seyed Emami’s death was under investigation.