London, 14 Dec - Niloufar Bayani was a student of biology at McGill university before she was sentenced to jail in Iran. Bayani graduated in 2009 and later worked for the United Nations Environment Programme.
Nearly a year ago, when she went to Iran to do environmental work, the former resident of Montreal and Toronto was arrested and accused of espionage, and has been in Evin prison, outside Tehran, since then.
McGill University has not commented, but University spokesperson Chris Chapello told the Montreal Gazette that McGill is "aware of the situation and has been in contact with the Canadian authorities."
Her friend, Hayley Lapalme said in an interview, "To learn this person, who had a wonderful presence in our community here [in Toronto], is now in a prison cell — it's stunning, really.”
Lapalme is working toward Bayani’s release. "Niloufar is this person who has this lightness, goodness, intelligence and generosity about her that is really contagious," Lapalme said. "She really brings out the best in people.”
According to Lapalme, Bayani environmental field work included the study of zebra mussels in Montreal and researching marine life in Belize. She went to Iran to do field work with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, where she set up camera traps to track Asiatic cheetahs, an endangered species in Iran.
For this, Iranian authorities accused Bayani of spying. She was charged with "sowing corruption on Earth," for which she has not yet had a trial, and could face the death penalty.
"The kind of work that we can practice freely and that is appreciated here, it's work that's being criminalized now in Iran," Lapalme said.
An open letter that demands the release of Bayani and eight other environmentalists in Iran, was signed by more than 300 conservationists, including primatologist Jane Goodall, last month. In the letter, the use of camera traps is described as "a standard tool for wildlife monitoring, being deployed for that purpose in many regions around the world.” The letter states, ”We are convinced that their work and research had no second means or objectives. We are horrified about the thought that the neutral field of conservation could ever be used to pursue political objectives."
The publication of the letter is "certainly something that buoys us and gives us hope,” to Bayani's friends and family.
Iranian-Canadian environmentalist Kavous Seyed-Emami Seyed-Emami was the founder of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation. He was also sent to Evin prison around the time of Bayani’s arrest. He died behind bars shortly after his detention — by suicide, according to Iranian authorities. However, his friends and family have contested this. In fact, his sons blame Iranian prison guards for their father’s death.
Regarding Seyed-Emami's death, Lapalme said, "I think that news certainly shakes us. But we are optimistic and hopeful that our friend is doing OK.” She added, "Niloufar is an incredibly resilient person. I think we are just extending her any strength that you can muster across distance. All we can do it be optimistic.”
Lapalme says that Bayani has had limited access to legal counsel, and her friends and family have "no real information" about how she's doing. She can only hope that her friend will be released soon.
"I think if we could speak to her today, I would let her know that her friends and her community in Canada are here in solidarity with her," she said. "And the fact that she courageously pursued her principles — I want her to know that we value that."