Iran has added another American to its prisons after government officials swept up members of a wildlife conservation non-governmental organization, leading to the death of a Canadian prisoner behind bars.
Morad Tahbaz was among several current and former staffers of the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation arrested on Jan. 24 and 25, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran. Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi claimed Saturday that members of the group “were gathering classified information in strategic fields under the guise of scientific and environmental projects.”
According to a flyer for an address he gave at Yale, Tahbaz co-founded the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation in Iran and Persian Wildlife Foundation in the United States to help augment conservation hampered by small budgets and meager staff allocated by the Iranian government.
“There is a constant struggle between local communities’ desired use versus sustainable use of their natural resources. The Persian Wildlife Foundation focuses on exactly this issue in conjunction with helping some of the threatened fauna from being further diminished or even going extinct,” says the group’s website, listing their activities including research, on-the-ground conservation efforts, educational materials, and “organizing scientific exchanges between Iranian and international conservation specialists.”
Tahbaz graduated from Colgate University in 1977 and got his MBA from Columbia University in 1983; he discovered his passion for nature after subscribing to National Geographic at age 9. He’s listed as founder and partner of two U.S. investment firms. The Yale bio said he’s a life member of the Wild Sheep Foundation, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the Cat Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
According to an online research bio, he conducts research in climatology, remote sensing and hydrology, and his group worked on a project for conservation of the Asiatic cheetah. His Instagram account includes photos of his home in Weston, Conn., two black labs at home, travels in Costa Rica and Madrid, and shots of nature in Iran — including close-up photos of big cats and ibex caught on trap cameras set up by his foundation in Khar Turan National Park.
On Saturday, the son of the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation’s managing director tweeted that his mother had been notified the previous day of Kavous Seyed-Emami’s in-custody death. Dowlatabadi claimed Sunday that the Canadian sociology professor “knew that many had confessed against him and he himself had made some confessions, too… unfortunately, he committed suicide.” Seyed-Emami was 17 days into his detention and harsh interrogation; he was 63 years old. Friends who knew him best told Canadian media that they don’t believe he killed himself.
Last week, the attorney for Nizar Zakka, a permanent U.S. resident and IT specialist arrested in 2015 after Iran invited him to speak at a conference on women’s entrepreneurship and employment, said that it is believed he has colon cancer but Iranian officials won’t let him get treatment. Zakka has been sharing a cell at Tehran’s notorious Evin prison with U.S. citizen and Princeton University doctoral student Xiyue Wang, who was arrested in August 2016 and later sentenced to 10 years in prison after officials claimed his academic research of late 19th and early 20th century Eurasian history was espionage.
Iran also recently returned to Evin prison 81-year-old U.S. hostage Baquer Namazi, 81, who was arrested in Tehran in February 2016 after trying to secure the release of his son, Siamak Namazi, a U.S. citizen and businessman who was arrested in October 2015 while visiting a friend in Tehran.
In October 2016, the Namazis were sentenced to 10 years in prison “for spying and cooperating with the U.S. government against Iran.” Baquer Namazi has been hospitalized four times in the past year, and has life-threatening heart problems.
American hostage Karan Vafadari, 56, an art gallery owner and Zoroastrian arrested in July 2016 along with his Iranian wife, Afarin Niasari, received a 27-year sentence and 124 lashes for “collusion in plots against national security,” “storing smuggled foreign alcohol,” “possessing my father’s opium pipe,” and having 124 “inappropriate” CDs, six packs of playing cards and marijuana.
Vafadari recently wrote that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had “tried to convince Afarin to give false statements against me, to say I was a member of the Mossad and the CIA… so they could hang me.”
Retired FBI agent Bob Levinson, who disappeared nearly 11 years ago off the coast of Iran, is America’s longest-held hostage. Last year, the Levinson family filed a lawsuit against Iran in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia “for injuries suffered by each of them as a result of Iran’s unlawful acts of hostage taking, torture and other torts.”