When the call finally came, Maryam Seyed Emami’s heart leapt. Except for one brief phone call, she had heard nothing from her husband, Kavous Seyed Emami , a professor and prominent environmentalist, since he was arrested and accused of spying more than two weeks before. Now, she was being told to come to the offices of the Tehran prosecutor, where she could see her husband at last.
She rushed off, but upon arrival quickly sensed that something was wrong. Instead of being taken to see her husband she was closeted in a room with a prosecutor and four intelligence agents from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and interrogated for several hours. Cooperate, they told her, or you, too, will end up in prison.
In recounting the experience for their two sons, Ramin and Mehran, Ms. Seyed Emami said that the agents had asked about the couple’s friends and parties they had attended. They showed her family pictures and asked her to describe who and what were in them. They inquired about her husband’s environmental work, she told her sons. Did you know, they asked at one point, that he was a spy?
When the agents finally ran out of questions, she was informed she could see her husband. There was just one thing, they said. He was dead, having committed suicide in his cell.
“They should have built a statue to him, not let him die in prison,” Ramin, 36, a well-known singer in Iran who appears under the stage name King Raam , said in a lengthy interview. He and Mehran, 34, said they decided to ignore warnings from the interrogators and speak out in the hope of pressing the authorities to be more forthcoming about what had really happened to their father and to other prisoners who have died recently under mysterious circumstances in Iran’s prisons.
Mr. Seyed Emami with his sons Ramin, center, and Mehran.
Family of Seyed Emami
“We want a transparent investigation,” said Mehran, who denied any and all accusations that his father was a spy.
While the death of Mr. Seyed Emami was a tragedy for his family, it has become something of a rallying point for middle-class Iranians. Until Mr. Seyed Emami was arrested along with six other environmentalists in late January, he had stood for many as a symbol of hope, the star of an inspirational video about the possibility of change.
“My father was always full of hope, he made me believe change is possible, even in places you least expect it,” said Mehran. “He had a gift for bringing people from all walks of life together.”
Now, his death in Evin Prison is feeding into a growing anger and disaffection in Iran over a system many fear will never be changed . Those feelings erupted in nationwide demonstrations earlier this year, and helped drive a number of women to take off their headscarves recently in public to protest mandatory veiling.
Mr. Seyed Emami is also among a growing number of prominent Iranians and Westerners, at least six of them Iranian-Americans and others with dual passports, who have been imprisoned in what analysts say is a deadly serious competition between conservatives in Iran clinging to the revolution and those trying to respond to widespread yearnings for change.
Lately, the hardliners have found new strength, analysts say, their anti-Western position bolstered by growing threats from President Trump , Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Mohammed bin Salman , the young crown prince of Saudi Arabia.
“The pillars of our revolution are under attack more than ever, so it’s natural for the intelligence unit of the Guards to get involved,” said Hamidreza Taraghi, a hard-line analyst.
*A Pragmatist ‘in Love With Nature’*
In many respects, Mr. Seyed Emami was an unexpected target of the hard-liners. Softspoken, he always preferred to cooperate rather than challenge the authorities. A sociologist teaching at the conservative Imam Sadiq University , he had always stood out for his liberal, pragmatic approach, believing in gradual change and individual responsibility for making it happen. The only shaven professor on the faculty, he held a Canadian passport and was a fan of the American political philosopher John Rawls .
In his free time, Mr. Seyed Emami, a youthful 64 when he died, led an influential private environmental organization, the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation , founded in 2008 by Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-American entrepreneur. With his Canadian passport, gotten as many Canadian-Iranians had in the 1980s and 1990s, he could have lived in Canada. But he chose to stay in Iran and work for change here.
In his classes and through the foundation, he urged his fellow Iranians to work within the system to build the country they desired, despite setbacks they might experience. But lately some authorities clearly found his work at the foundation, which had continued for nearly nine years, suspicious.
As part of its preservation of endangered species, the foundation had set up camera traps to track rare animals like the Persian leopard in the wild. Those cameras, as well as the foundation’s frequent invitations to foreign experts, would figure in the spying charges.
The first signs of trouble emerged in state news media outlets controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, with several hit pieces on the foundation, most of them focusing on Mr. Tahbaz, its founder. One article , which was published in November, accused him of “constructing gambling houses in the U.S. and Israel.” Weeks later he was arrested, and he remains in custody.
All his life, Mr. Seyed Emami had “documented everything, never had secretive meetings, always public,” Ramin said. “His goal was to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people by calculating and measuring his every move.”
*An Arrest and a “Ridiculous” Charge of Spying*
In retrospect, however, it seems there was nothing he could have done to avoid arrest. While visiting friends near the Caspian Sea on Jan. 24, he received a phone call telling him to report to the prosecutor’s office in the nearby city of Chalous.
“When his friend and my dad arrived there, before he even entered the door, 15 people jumped out of cars, grabbed and handcuffed them, placed hoods over their heads and drove them around for an hour,” said Ramin. The friend was released and returned home, deeply shaken. Mr. Seyed Emami was taken to Tehran and thrown into Evin Prison.
The Iranian authorities say that Mr. Seyed Emami was a spy working for the United States and Israel. He and the others arrested with him had “installed cameras in the country’s strategic locations to monitor Iran’s missile activities, sending information to foreigners,” the Tehran prosecutor, Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi, said.
Mr. Jafari-Dolatabadi appeared on state television on Feb. 11 to say Mr. Seyed Emami had killed himself in his prison cell two days before, after having confessed to his crimes.
To Mr. Seyed Emami’s family, those assertions are ludicrous. “It’s just all so ridiculous, we don’t even know where to start,” Ramin said. “Those cameras, for instance, are for shooting wildlife, their range doesn’t go beyond 25 meters. They are cheap and can be bought anywhere. Even if they wanted — which they didn’t — how could they spy on the missile program with those?”
He and his brother were abroad at the time of the arrest. “When I heard it, I wasn’t that worried,” Mehran said. “Everybody told us it would all blow over.”
A day after the arrest, the Seyed Emamis’ house in Tehran was raided by at least 30 agents who spent eight hours ransacking the place. They took family photo albums, computers and sound cards for Ramin’s musical instruments, among other things.
The next day, a distraught Mrs. Seyed Emami was driven back to Tehran from Chalous by a friend, as her car had been impounded. A few days later, she was alone in her family’s home when the phone rang. It was her husband. He sounded terrible. “I’m O.K.,” he said.
“That was the last time she ever heard his voice,” said Ramin.
*A Funeral in the Rain*
His sons returned to Iran the day after their father died, although many people warned them against it. “We wanted to be here,” said Mehran. “We wanted to be with my mother and those we loved.”
Ramin concurred. “I couldn’t live with myself,” he said, “if I didn’t come back home to bury my father.”
The funeral took place on a windy hilltop in a village outside Tehran, with intelligence agents photographing the ceremony. Fittingly, perhaps, the rain Iran so badly needs came pouring down, a sign of nature’s tribute to Mr. Seyed Emami, many mourners said.
Some days later, after Ramin posted his grievances and doubts on his Instagram page , the brothers were called into the Tehran prosecutor’s office. There, a deputy prosecutor flipped through his phone showing images of an autopsy of their father, “as if he was showing pictures of his vacation,” Ramin said.
He then produced a surveillance video. “I saw my father entering his cell, pacing through the room,” Ramin said. “They have taken his eyeglasses, without which he can barely see. He makes the bed, places a shirt around his neck and enters the bathroom. Seven hours later he is brought out, dead.”
“I can’t determine what happened there,” the son went on. “Why would he make his bed? How can he hang himself in a high-security prison?”
As the brothers were leaving the prosecutor’s office, the Tasnim news agency was reporting that they had seen the surveillance video and accepted the official finding that their father had killed himself. “They had calculated the entire thing,” Ramin said.
Both sons doubt the official account of his death.
“He was always positive, looking for the upside in everything,” they said. They were denied the chance for an independent autopsy because the official one had already been performed, without their permission.
The Iranian authorities have seized the deed to the Seyed Emamis’ house, so the family cannot sell it and leave the country. And influential social media voices have been told not to discuss the case.
But the brothers say they are determined to continue to speak out, even at the risk of imprisonment, until they know the real story. “We are ready to do whatever it takes to clear his name,” Ramin said, as Mehran nodded in agreement.
Ramin says he thinks often of a conversation he had with his father a few days before his arrest, when he had been feeling depressed. “We spoke about the way to live a good life,” he said. His dad laughed, and had a single answer. “The key is to give love. That is where happiness comes from.”
By THOMAS ERDBRINK