Kavous Seyed-Emami, an Iranian-Canadian dual citizen and environmental activist, has died in custody in Iran. His case is one of many other suspicious detainee deaths in the country.

Professor of sociology at Imam Sadeq University in Tehran, Kavous Seyed-Emami speaks at the University of Lethbridge, Canada, October 6, 2017. (Prentice Lethbridge)
Professor of sociology at Imam Sadeq University in Tehran, Kavous Seyed-Emami speaks at the University of Lethbridge, Canada, October 6, 2017. (Prentice Lethbridge) (Youtube)

An Iranian-Canadian university professor detained in Tehran has died in custody, activists and a family member said on Sunday, marking the latest suspicious death of a detainee in Iran after a crackdown on dissent following nationwide protests.

They identified the professor as Kavous Seyed-Emami, a 63-year-old professor of sociology at Imam Sadeq University in Tehran and the managing director of the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation. 

His son and the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) said that authorities told Seyed-Emami's family that he committed suicide in custody, something they described as suspicious following other detainee deaths.

Iranian state media and officials did not immediately report Seyed-Emami's death on Sunday, as the country held nationwide rallies marking the 39th anniversary of the country's 1979 Iranian Revolution.

However, Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said on Saturday that authorities had arrested several unidentified people on suspicion of spying.

"Tehran's prosecutor said those individuals, in the context of implementing scientific and environmental projects, sought to collect information ... on the country's strategic areas," a report by the state-run IRNA news agency said, without elaborating.

The professor's son, musician Ramin Seyed-Emami who performs under the stage name King Raam, also wrote on Instagram that his father had died following his arrest on January 24.

"They say he committed suicide. I still can't believe this," he wrote.

Global Affairs Canada, the country's Foreign Ministry, said it was aware of reports of Seyed-Emami's death. An Iranian reformist lawmaker, Mahmoud Sadeghi, tweeted that he failed to get information on Seyed-Emami's death despite calls to "related officials."

"Some of them refused to comment, some others said we pursued (but) failed to get information," the lawmaker wrote.

The CHRI 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.

Iran entered the New Year with nationwide protests sweeping across 75 cities and towns. The demonstrations initially focused on Iran's poor economy despite its nuclear deal with world powers, but quickly spiralled into chants directly challenging Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the government.

Authorities arrested nearly 5,000 people in the crackdown that followed, according to Alireza Rahimi, an Iranian lawmaker. At least 21 people were killed in clashes surrounding the demonstrations.

Iran's prison system

Activists say they have concerns about Iran's prisons and jails being overcrowded and dangerous, pointing to allegations of torture, abuse and deaths that followed the mass arrests during Iran's 2009 Green Movement protests. Since the most-recent protests, activists have said they also remain concerned by reported suicides within Iran's prison system.

Analysts and family members of dual nationals and others detained in Iran have suggested that hard-liners in the country's security agencies use the prisoners as bargaining chips for money or influence. 

A UN panel in September described "an emerging pattern involving the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of dual nationals" in Iran, which Tehran denies.

Iran does not recognise dual nationalities, so those detainees cannot receive consular assistance.

Detainees in Iran

Others with ties to the West detained in Iran include Chinese-American graduate student Xiyue Wang, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly "infiltrating" the country while doing doctoral research on Iran's Qajar dynasty. 

Iranian-Canadian national Abdolrasoul Dorri Esfahani, a member of Iran's 2015 nuclear negotiating team, is believed to be serving a five-year sentence on espionage charges. 

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman, also is serving a five-year prison sentence for allegedly planning the "soft toppling" of Iran's government while traveling with her young daughter.

Iranian businessman Siamak Namazi and his 81-year-old father Baquer, a former UNICEF representative who served as governor of Iran's oil-rich Khuzestan province under the US-backed shah, are both serving 10-year sentences on espionage charges. 

Iranian-American art dealer Karan Vafadari and his Iranian wife, Afarin Neyssari, recently received 27-year and 16-year prison sentences respectively.

Iranian-American Robin Shahini was released on bail last year after staging a hunger strike while serving an 18-year prison sentence for "collaboration with a hostile government." Shahini is believed to still be in Iran.

Also in an Iranian prison is Nizar Zakka, a US permanent resident from Lebanon who advocated for internet freedom and has done work for the US government. He was sentenced to 10 years last year on espionage-related charges.

Former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran in 2007 while on an unauthorised CIA mission, remains missing as well. Iran says that Levinson is not in the country and that it has no further information about him, though his family holds Tehran responsible for his disappearance.

Source: AP