OPINION: Federica Mogherini must try to save the lives of eight Iranian environmentalists

An Iranian judge could soon sentence eight environmentalists to death for carrying out scientific measurements that are very similar to those that the European Commission is financing. We can’t let this happen.

The eight environmental activists had already spent six months in prison when the EU decided to approve €18 million in support of environmental causes in Iran, as part of an EU €50 million aid package.

Houman Jowkar, Taher Ghadirian, Morad Tahbaz, Sepideh Kashani, Niloufar Bayani, Amir Hossein Khaleghi, Sam Rajabi and Abdolreza Kouhpayehused were carrying out surveys to assess the state of Iranian wildlife last year. They are now accused of either spying, “corruption of earth” or “assembly and collusion against national security”.

Investigators took what the victims describe as forced confessions and have not produced any evidence so far.

An anonymous source cited by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) said that “some of the detainees were also physically beaten up… all to force them to give false confessions against themselves.” Another activist who was accused of similar crimes, Seyed-Emami, died while in state custody under mysterious circumstances.

The UN has called the charges against the eight “hard to fathom.”

Nowhere in the world, including Iran, should conservation be equated to spying or regarded as a crime,” said UN human rights experts, adding that the “Detention of human rights defenders for their work is arbitrary in nature.

But here’s a twist. With Iran’s nuclear deal being ripped apart by the US but kept on life support by European countries, the leverage to do something about this situation could be with Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

On Friday 15 February, Federica Mogherini and Helga Schmid, Secretary General of the European External Action Service will go to the Munich security conference, where they will have a chance to talk to the Iranian foreign minister, who is also attending.

Will they stand up for the European values that they claim to champion? Will they demand the Iranian government to do whatever they can to release innocent environmentalists?

That’s the least we would expect. In the meantime, Belgian MEP for the Greens Bart Staes has publicly promised to put Mogherini under pressure to act as soon as possible.

The situation is of course more complex than that, as Iran also has a strict division of powers between government and judiciary. In fact, even Iran’s own government said that the accusations are unfounded. It is rather Iran’s Revolutionary Guard who want to flex muscles for political gain.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards act independently of President Hassan Rohani’s government and have huge influence within the country’s conservative-dominated judiciary.

Yet, questions remain over how the EU should deal with a country that would convict and kill environmentalists for political gain, after what is clearly an unfair trial. Given that one of the eight is a UK passport holder with EU citizenship, our officials cannot just stand by and watch him die.

Nowadays, four people are killed each week for protecting the environment – up from one a week just a decade ago. Clearly, more needs to be done to protect the protectors. People all over the world want environmental justice and an end to the criminalization of environmental activists. This week, Mogherini has a chance to stand up for both human rights and environmental rights. She must take it.