April 15, 2024

Environmentalist Prisoners Freed in Iran—Continue the Struggle to Free Them All

April 15, 2024

The exit gates of Evin Prison in Iran were a scene of joy on April 8 and 9, as the last four of a group of environmentalists were released[1] after spending a hellish six years behind bars for their efforts to track the Asiatic cheetah, one of the most endangered big cats on earth.

During those six years, people worldwide had fought for their unjust conviction for “espionage” and “collaboration with hostile countries” to be overturned, notably Scholars at Risk, Concerned Scientists, and celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio.

The exit gates of Evin Prison in Iran were a scene of joy on April 8 and 9, as the last four of a group of environmentalists were released[1] after spending a hellish six years behind bars for their efforts to track the Asiatic cheetah, one of the most endangered big cats on earth.

During those six years, people worldwide had fought for their unjust conviction for “espionage” and “collaboration with hostile countries” to be overturned, notably Scholars at Risk, Concerned Scientists, and celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio.

Niloufar Bayani walks out of Evin Prison, wearing the hat of her wardmate Golrokh Iraee as a reminder of those still behind bars. (Golrokh joked that at least her hat was released.)    Photo: Ghazzal Abdollahi on X
Seven of the nine formerly imprisoned Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) team. L-R: Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, Houman Jokar*, Sepideh Kashani*, Sam Rajabi, Niloufar Bayani*, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Taher Ghadirian* (*indicates released on April 8-9). (US-British-Iranian Morad Tahbaz was released to the US in 2023. PWHF head Kavous Seyed Emami died in custody just after his arrest.)     Photo: Social Media

In particular Niloufar Bayani, an environmental scientist born in Iran who studied in the U.S. and Canada, had played a role of bringing a broader worldview to people inside and outside the prison walls. This is a role also played by many other political prisoners in Iran from diverse political perspectives.[2]

Mariam Claren, daughter of political prisoner Nahid Taghavi, wrote on free.nahid (translated from German by IEC volunteers):

The joy about the release of the environmentalists is huge. After my mom was arrested, this was the first case I read about. In January 2018, the group, including Niloufar Bayani and Sepideh Kashani, were arrested. One of the environmentalists, Kavous Seyed Emami, died after 2 weeks in custody under mysterious circumstances. The others were detained for more than 2 years in the 2A high-security area, tortured, threatened….
When my mother was transferred to the women's unit after 7 months of isolation in May 2021, it was Niloufar Bayani who provided her first aid. Yes, first aid is needed after isolation. Can barely walk, stand, hair falling out, skin sores. The case of the environmentalists is one of the biggest crimes of the regime, which we will never forget. 6 years of their lives were stolen. 6 years when they couldn't guard the animals, the rivers, the plants. #niloufarbayani #freenahid #freepoliticalprisoners #protectingearth

In 2018, the year of the PWHF team’s arrest, Iran arrested a total of 63 or more environmental activists and researchers, showing how much Iran’s theocratic regime, for all its medieval ideology, is deeply invested in the modern capitalist economy of the international fossil fuel industry, with all the destruction it is bringing to Iran and the world—and how determined they are to squash all opposition to that.

Niloufar Bayani wrote to the judge in her trial (in which none of the defendants were allowed lawyers and not a single piece of evidence was presented):

All my confessions regarding espionage or engaging in other criminal activities were dictated and induced under the most severe mental and psychological torture, along with physical and sexual threats during at least 1,200 hours of interrogation… daily threats of execution, 8 months of total isolation in solitary confinement with long interrogations lasting 9 to 12 hours day and night, interrogations blindfolded while standing or spinning, or in a sit-and-stand situation, insulting the prisoner and her family members, and humiliation in different ways, e.g. forcing her to mimic sounds of wild animals. … What completed my psychological collapse was that I was suddenly shown a photo of Dr. Seyed-Emami’s corpse in the morgue as his family stood by. They [the interrogators] told me: That will be the fate of you and all of your colleagues and family members unless you write whatever we want.[3]

Similarly, her co-defendant Houman Jokar was brutally beaten, sustaining a head injury, and then paraded covered in blood in front of his wife, Sepideh Kashani, to try to force her to confess according to their script.

Caring About “the Universe and Everything in It”

In stark contrast to her vicious theocratic captors, Niloufar Bayani was described by a colleague to National Geographic in this way:

Her interest in conserving at-risk species reflects a moral compass that she followed closely: She cared about the universe and everything that was in it.

This stands out in a scholarly paper that Bayani wrote while in prison, “Climate Literacy in the Land of Oil,”[4] published by her colleagues through Scholars at Risk. In it she interviews other women political prisoners in Evin about their knowledge and attitudes toward climate change. Here is an excerpt:

When asked if interviewees saw a link between the oil and gas industry and climate change, the most common response was an unsure “I don’t know.” ...

This is the country with the world’s third-largest oil and second-largest natural gas reserve holder in 2021, an economy mostly dependent on its national oil and gas sector, major oil fields operations in multiple provinces and extensive off-shore drilling, and at the same time a place where impacts of climate change are so severely felt by every individual and the increasing intensity of the effects (droughts, dust storms, floods, etc.) are combined with high vulnerability to disasters. Here, only 6 out of 25 sociopolitical activists could identify a relationship between these two matters, painting a grim picture of the future.…

Are we even ready to point out the faults in the economic sector that our country so heavily relies on?

She notes as to the righteous protests in Iran, when it relates to environmental destruction (severe desertification, lack of water, oil industry pollution, etc.), often results in a narrow viewpoint (“not in my backyard” as a demand). Local groups would turn against each other in the desperate struggle for water and resources. People tend to completely miss the links to greenhouse gas emissions and its global effects. After documenting this “grim picture” of the state of consciousness among her fellow political prisoners, Niloufar worked to change this by leading classes on climate change inside Evin women’s ward. As a result, 20 political prisoners wrote an open letter on the climate emergency published in Radio Zamaneh.

“As possible as a rare blue butterfly in a notorious prison”

Bayani’s paper ends with a poetic soliloquy titled “Hope.” She is a scientist; she does not close her eyes to the terrible threats to the survival of the environment and all its extraordinary species. Whatever her political and ideological perspective, her sense of hope bases itself on a genuine resistance in Iran, not on placing illusory hope in heavenly or oppressive authorities.

The sudden visit of a small blue butterfly in the prison yard distracts me from my dystopian thoughts. It has been a long time since I’ve last seen such colors, radiant blue with purple shades. Its beauty is doubled by the bland background of asphalt and bricks. It must be a rare species. Its presence has calmed down my anxiety. It reminds me that rare does not mean impossible. Mahsa Amini’s death was one of such rare moments. As tragic as it was, her death became a scream as colorful and lively as my rare visitor; a uniting force that brought together unprecedented energy, power and resistance, to defend her unjust death. It brought the issue of women to the center of demands for justice and freedom. Many taboos were broken, particularly Hijab. Lines were crossed that will never be uncrossed again. The vibrancy of the uprising tells us that we have the capacity to become more aware and to see the injustice and the intersection of critical issues; those of women, minorities, workers, and environment, and to act while there is still time. As I follow the swift movements of my visitor, my mind is pulled towards a possibility: a colorful surge of people from all corners of the world coming together and demanding a future in which the climate of our planet does not imperil our existence, or that of other species. I come to think that it is possible. As possible as the first encounter with a rare blue butterfly in a notorious prison.

Free Them All NOW

The release of this group of environmentalists is indeed a joyful moment in the struggle to free Iran’s political prisoners. Yet there is a need for heightened vigilance as this is taking place with Iran’s fascist theocracy intensifying repression (e.g., increased executions and multi-leveled attacks on women who are hijab rebels). And as we write, there are ever louder war drums being beaten by Iran, Israel and the U.S. The threat to widen their military clashes will surely bring more suffering and death to the people of that region, with potential dire consequences for the planet’s people and its ecology. In the spirit of people seeing the global effect of all this, it is worth noting that the U.S. is the biggest threat to the environment even in “ordinary times” and more so with any war where its military is involved.[5]

For people who live in the U.S., there is a special responsibility to continue the struggle to free all of Iran’s political prisoners, and to demand that the U.S. government stop any war threats or attacks against Iran. Join us.


1.  Each year, the Islamic Republic of Iran traditionally pardons large numbers of prisoners on the last day of Ramadan in an attempt to cast a "benevolent" aura around their oppressive Islamic fundamentalist regime. Another important release was of political prisoner Arash Johari, workers’ rights activist and signatory of the 9-prisoner letter on Gaza.

2.  See “Letter from 9 political prisoners: “Our Responsibility Concerning the Suffering of Others,”, November 26, 2023.  

3.  “1200 Hours of Torture, Sexual Threats and Forced Confessions,”, March 2, 2020.

4.  “Climate Literacy in the Land of Oil,” Scholars at Risk, June 2023.  [back]

5.  “US military is world’s single largest consumer of oil, and as a result, one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitter,”, June 22, 2019.  

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