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Questions raised after Iranian-Canadian environmental activist dies in prison

Friends and family have questioned the assertion from the Iranian authorities that Kavous Seyed-Emami's death was suicide
This handout photograph released on 11 February 2018 by the family of Iranian-Canadian environmentalist Kavous Seyed Emami shows him at an unidentified location (AFP)

Questions surrounded the death of a prominent Iranian-Canadian environmentalist on Sunday after authorities claimed he committed suicide in prison a fortnight after his arrest.

Kavous Seyed-Emami was managing director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, which seeks to protect Iran's rare animals, and a US-trained scholar in sociology.

Seyed-Emami's son, the Iranian musician Raam Emami, wrote on Twitter on Saturday that his father was arrested on 24 January and that his mother had been informed of Emami's death on 9 February. It was not immediately clear where he was tweeting from.

"The news of my father's passing is impossible to fathom," Raam Emami wrote. "I still can't believe this."

On his Instagram account, Raam Emami wrote that authorities said his father had committed suicide. He did not respond to requests for further comment.

The Iran Sociology Association, of which Emami was an active member, released a statement on Sunday questioning the claim that Emami took his own life.

"The information published about him is not believable and we expect officials to respond and to provide the public with information concerning his death," the statement said.

The Tehran prosecutor's incomplete and vague information has added to these concerns. What is going on in this country? Why doesn't the judiciary give out information in time and transparently?

- Ali Shakourirad, Islamic Union Party

Tehran's prosecutor, Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi, said on Saturday that Iran's security forces had arrested several people on espionage charges, the judiciary's Mizan news agency reported.

"They were gathering classified information in strategic areas ... under the coverage of scientific and environmental projects," he said, without giving further information.

The Iranian judiciary could not immediately be reached for comment on Saturday evening. Iranian authorities had not announced an arrest of Seyed-Emami, and his death was not confirmed by official sources.

The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), a non-profit group based in New York, said at least nine other staff members and executives of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation were arrested the same day as Seyed-Emami, citing information from a relative of one of those arrested.

Those arrested included an Iranian-American dual national, Morad Tahbaz, CHRI said. A US State Department spokeswoman said the United States is "aware of reports that a US citizen has been detained in Iran".

Several Iranian-American dual nationals are in jail in Iran. Reuters reported last year that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had arrested at least 30 dual nationals over the past two years, mostly on spying charges.

Public concerns

Seyed-Emami received his doctorate in sociology from the University of Oregon in 1991, according to an online alumni listing maintained by the university.

A spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada, which manages Canadian foreign and trade relations, said the government is aware of the reports of Seyed-Emami's death.

"Canadian consular officials in Ankara are working to gather additional information and are providing assistance to the family of the Canadian citizen," said the spokeswoman, Natasha Nystrom.

Canada does not have diplomatic presence in Iran, and its embassy in Ankara has consular responsibility for Iran.

"He was a very knowledgeable man and a very kind and generous man," said Nahid Siamdoust, a scholar at Yale University who knew him. "He lived a simple life that was connected to nature and that's why he was an inspiring man. People could see this was what he believed and he lived that way too."

"Everyone is in shock," an academic who knew Emami well told AFP on condition of anonymity. "He was one of the best professors. He was very profound, very composed, not at all political. He loved Iran and the environment.

"He came back recently from Canada, where he was doing research. On his return, he was called in several times" by the authorities.

Iran faces a number of serious environmental crises, including water scarcity, air pollution and wildlife poaching. Human rights groups say activists in Iran face the risk of arbitrary arrest and harassment by authorities.

Ali Shakourirad, head of the reformist Islamic Union Party, tweeted that the death "has caused a wave of questions and concerns among the public".

"The Tehran prosecutor's incomplete and vague information has added to these concerns. What is going on in this country? Why doesn't the judiciary give out information in time and transparently?" he wrote.

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