Australian-Iranian academic detained in Iran on espionage charges

Updated December 05, 2018 19:49:15

A Melbourne University academic has been detained in Iran after being accused of “social espionage” and “collaborating” with the West.

Key points:

  • Dr Hosseini Chavoshi criticised the Iranian Government’s move to lift population controls
  • The Department of Foreign Affairs is providing consular assistance
  • At least 13 other dual national academics are in detention in Iran

Meimanat Hosseini Chavoshi, an Australian-Iranian dual national, is a population expert who was in Tehran on a study tour when she was arrested.

She joins a growing number of dual-national academics the Islamic Republic claims are spies—a charge that can carry the death penalty.

Dr Hosseini Chavoshi has worked on population policy for over a decade.

“Her area of work is not very politically sensitive,” Swedish-based fellow academic and Iranian national Maysam Behravesh told The World Today.

“She was really an academic, not even a media personality, she was quite low-profile.”

The University of Melbourne researcher had criticised the Iranian Government’s decision to lift strict population controls.

Her publications supported previous policies which were designed to reduce population numbers.

But she was not the only one to support population control policies, according to Mr Behravesh.

“Population increase at a time when we have a huge environmental crisis inside Iran, when the economy is not stable, when the country is under sanctions there are so many problems,” he explained.

“And people like Chavoshi, in that context, people like her are not very welcome.”

‘People like her’

This is not the first time an academic has been arrested in Iran.

At least 13 other dual national academics are in detention there, and it is unclear how many more are being secretly held.

“Apart from Meimanat, I know three other people. One of them was killed in prison,” Mr Behravesh said.

His supervisor, sociologist and conservationist Professor Kavous Seyed-Emami, was one of those detained this year.

“He was living in Iran, but he was an Iranian-Canadian citizen,” Mr Behravesh said.

“He was also accused of espionage under the cover of environmental preservation and protection.”

Professor Seyed-Emami died in custody shortly after his arrest.

Iranian authorities claimed he took his own life, but Mr Behravesh told The World Today he does not believe it was suicide.

“Kavous was a very lively, energetic person,” he said.

“Almost two months before his death, he sent me an email and said he was going on sabbatical to Canada and asked me to join him there.

“He had plans, he had a life to live, and he was arranging stuff, and all of a sudden, I was just shocked when I heard about his death in prison.”

Six families of dual and foreign nationals imprisoned in Iran have this week published a joint open letter about the plight of their relatives.

“The evidence is conclusive, and we should call this what it is: hostage taking,” the letter said.

“While they are all unique and complicated cases, this is not an individual problem, it is a pattern…”

Conservationists and scholars around the world, including from high-profile organisations like the Jane Goodall Institute and WWF International, have also sent an open letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader about the cases of 10 academics, pleading the innocence of their colleagues and calling for “a fair and just evaluation of the evidence, access to lawyers of their choice and a transparent trial.”

One of the signatories is Professor Robert Harcourt, a conservationist from Macquarie University in Sydney.

“Any curtailing of academic freedom, particularly locking people up when they’re doing very important investigations, is really deeply concerning,” he told The World Today.

Professor Harcourt is worried that researchers will be prevented from doing important conservation work.

“People are less likely to undertake studies where they might be put it at risk,” he said.

“The universities just cannot afford to allow academics to go into areas where they might well end up being locked up for, I’m going to suggest, spurious reasons, and certainly ones that have long-term implications.”

“It’s a terrible infringement both on the truth and on academic pursuit.”

Why dual nationals?

Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian had first-hand experience of the Iranian prison system, having spent a year and a half in jail there for “inciting propaganda”.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone when a dual national gets picked up, it’s part of [Iran’s] foreign policy strategy,” he told the World Today.

Mr Rezaian believes Dr Hosseini Chavoshi’s arrest is part of a wider crackdown on dual nationals by the intelligence wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to minimise contact between Iran and the outside world.

“The main point of contact between Iranian society and other countries has become dual nationals working in different fields,” he said.

“It’s a warning shot to others, but also it’s a way to stifle the flow of information.”

“In the mind of Iranian officialdom, an espionage agency could be any university in Australia, America, Canada or the EU.

“They cast a very wide net, and people that are doing important work that can shine light on problems in society—whether it’s environmental, in this case about demographics, free expression—they really want to put a lid on this sort of public discussion.”

He said there are many cases where people working in Iran with the state’s permission are falsely imprisoned.

“And unfortunately, I think the real truth here is that she was making facts known to the world that, for whatever reason, the Islamic Republic establishment deems unacceptable,” he said.

Mr Rezaian said the charge of espionage is used as a way to characterise the detentions as a judicial concern, and it is essential that supporting institutions are transparent about the actual nature of academics’ work.

“I would argue it is of the whole world’s concern,” he said.

It is unclear when Dr Hosseini Chavoshi will face trial.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has not commented other than to say it is providing consular assistance to an Australian.

Topics: security-intelligence, foreign-affairs, international-law, population-and-demographics, university-and-further-education, conservation, university-of-melbourne-3010, iran-islamic-republic-of

First posted December 05, 2018 19:27:03

Lawn Mowing Service

Add a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.