Among the many thousands of political prisoners in Iranian prisons are seven prominent environmental activists arrested in 2018. Former British Council employee Aras Amiri was imprisoned with two of them for two and a half years. She was released last year and is now speaking out for the first time to draw attention to their plight.
Aras Amiri has every reason to look forward in her life.
Since returning to the UK, she has married, moved to Jersey and is now six months pregnant.
But every day her thoughts take her back to Tehran’s Evin Prison – and to those she left behind when she was released.
Like other political prisoners, the former London-based arts manager of the British Council spent time in solitary confinement, where she was threatened, blindfolded and interrogated around the clock.
She was accused of working against the regime and given a 10-year prison sentence after refusing to cooperate with Iranian intelligence, though she was eventually 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,” she says. “And it has long-lasting consequences for all of us.”
But she doesn’t want to talk about herself.
Ms. Amiri was detained in Evin women’s ward along with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe along with two environmental activists, Niloufar Bayani and Sepideh Kashani.
“My heart burns for them,” she says. “They were my best friends there. And it’s just 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).
The director, Canadian-Iranian dual national Kavous Seyed-Emami, died under suspicious circumstances shortly after his arrest while being questioned.
The group had used cameras to track critically endangered wild Asiatic cheetahs but was accused of using their environmental projects as a “front to collect classified information”.
Although a committee of Iranian ministers concluded there was no evidence that they were spies, in 2019 a Revolutionary Court convicted them on several national security charges and sentenced them to prison terms of six to 10 years.
“Their arrest is part of a wider crackdown on Iranian environmental activists,” said Ms Amiri. “And there is no accountability. The whole process of the judiciary is a dark joke.”
Best known for their wor
k protecting Asiatic cheetahs, she says they also worked with Persian leopards, dolphins and turtles on Qeshm Island, Asiatic bears and migratory birds.
“They have done such important work. Their projects have always been supported by local people. It is a loss for all of Iran.”
The UN Environment Programme, where Niloufar Bayani had worked as an advisor for several years before joining the PWHF, has called for their release.
Ms Amiri says Bayani and Kashani were “cheerful” company in prison despite everything they endured, including two years in solitary confinement.
“They are such generous souls – determined to make life beautiful. We still got to laugh together. I was very lucky to be held with them.”
She describes the psychological pressure placed on them during their interrogations as “so appalling, it’s even hard to imagine”.
Bayani wrote in court that she was threatened with assault, forced to imitate the sounds of wild animals and was shown photographs of Kavous Seyed-Emami’s body and told that she and her colleagues would suffer a similar fate unless they confessed.
In a letter written from prison on the fifth anniversary of their arrest, Kashani said she was interrogated in a room with “blood everywhere” and threatened with hanging. Her interrogators said her husband would die like Seyed-Emami.
Both women were held in the dreaded 2A section 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 a prisoner exchange.
Released in 2020, Mrs. Moore-Gilbert dedicated her memoir of her time in prison to the two women, describing them as “sisters in suffering and injustice” who secretly shared encouragements and food with her at great risk to themselves .
“Their love, solidarity and selfless concern for me, a foreigner to whom they owed nothing, was the difference between surviving the mental torture of solitary confinement and succumbing to the willful cruelty and humiliation of the Iranian prison regime,” she said. to the BBC.
“The injustice of Nilou and Sepideh’s imprisonment continues to torment me, and not a day goes by that I don’t think of them and hope for news of their release.”
Aras Amiri got to know the women when they were transferred from 2A to Evin’s general women’s wing.
“They are so loved by all the inmates,” she says. “And they really shared with us the love they have for nature. I just want them to be back with their families, back in nature, and back to protect Iran’s wildlife.”