Canadian-Iranian brothers Ramin and Mehran Seyed-Emami want to know how and why their father died.
The healthy 64-year-old Kavous Seyed-Emami was a sociology professor and well-known environmentalist who ran the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation from Tehran. Well-liked among his colleagues and students, he had launched projects to track rare and endangered animals, such as the Persian leopard, while he conducted research on environmental issues.
But his work came to an end after he was arrested suddenly in January and accused of spying for Israel and the CIA. He was held for just a few weeks before he allegedly committed suicide in prison in early February. Officials in Iran claim that he had confessed to his crimes prior to his death, adding that he was part of a conspiracy to collect classified information under the guise of "scientific and environmental projects."
Emami's foundation had set up cameras to track rare animals in the wilderness. The cameras, together with the foundation’s communication with international experts, were used to fuel accusations that Emami and other employees were engaged in espionage.
But no charges were ever brought against their father, Emami's sons say. And the government has yet to provide any evidence that he was a spy. What's more, Ramin and Mehran say they don’t believe that their father’s death was a suicide.
"There are so many inaccuracies in the official story, from the day that he died to how he died, that these contradictions just added more to our suspicions about what actually went down," Ramin, a popular musician in Iran, told Newsweek. The brothers said the authorities pressured the family to bury their father's body as soon as possible and didn't allow them to conduct an independent autopsy.
Experiencing immense grief and pressure, they went to collect their father's body and plan a funeral—but finding a venue was difficult. Iranian media started a smear campaign against the environmentalist, and people began to distance themselves from the family out of fear, they said.
"We were trying to grieve and bury our father, and the same day there was a 10-minute show on television, broadcast to millions of people, just spreading lies and misinformation," Mehran told Newsweek.
The brothers say police raided their home, confiscated home videos of family camping trips and edited the videos to create the smear campaign, which promoted conspiracy theories about Emami's alleged involvement with foreign intelligence.
"They made [the videos] slow motion and put some scary music on it and went on with these ludicrous accusations against our father," Ramin said. "They said he worked with the CIA, MI6, Mossad, to even blaming him for the drought in the country."
Intelligence officials were also present at the funeral and they continued to harass the family after the funeral was over, the men say.
"We've had further pressure and chaos, and we haven't been able to grieve in peace," Mehran said. "This is what they do, they try to pressure you into keeping silent, breaking down your will, your strength, confuse you, to finally slip up and do something stupid," he continued, referring to the intelligence unit of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The brothers say this intelligence unit is responsible for the harassment they've faced.
"I've received threats, harassment, text messages, phone calls...at one point they bumped into me in the street and said, 'we're watching you,'" Ramin noted.
On March 8, the family decided to leave Iran for the safety of Canada.
"The reason for us wanting to leave was just so our mom could be somewhere with a peaceful environment where she could just grieve," Ramin explained.
But it wasn't that easy. Just as the family was about to board the plane with their three dogs, a plain-clothed agent called out their mother's name. The family immediately knew that something was wrong. The agent took their mother's passport and said she was barred from leaving the country. They were never told the reason why.
In the chaos of the moment, their mother Maryam Mombeini convinced her sons it would be safer if they left the country without her. The men say their mother, who is also a dual Canadian-Iranian citizen, is staying with friends and family. But they are calling on the Canadian government to guarantee her safety and for Iran to let her leave the country and be reunited with her children.
"My brother and I, we were heartbroken and devastated that this had happened," Ramin said.
On March 7, Chrystia Freeland, Canada's minister of foreign affairs, wrote via Twitter that she was "outraged to learn that Maryam Mombeini, widow of Kavous Seyed-Emami, was barred from leaving Iran. We demand that, as a Canadian, she be given the freedom to return home."
Ramin and Mehran say they were not very worried when their father was first arrested. Kavous Seyed-Emami had a good reputation and his work was conducted transparently, they say, so they believed they had nothing to worry about. His sudden arrest and death, followed by the accusations that he had betrayed his country, shocked them.
Activists in Iran, however, argue that Emami's death is part of a pattern and that there have been other suspicious deaths in Iranian prisons authorities deemed a suicide. Two Iranians arrested during recent protests also allegedly committed suicide in prison in recent months.
Kavous Seyed-Emami is the second Iranian-Canadian dual citizen to die in prison in Iran. In 2003, freelance photographer Zahra Kazemi was beaten to death after being arrested for taking photographs outside the prison where the environmentalist died. Authorities claimed her death was an accident.
For now, the brothers say they don't want to speculate about how their father died. But they do want answers, and they want their mother to be safe.
Four human rights groups released a statement on Tuesday calling on Iran to "end their cruel campaign of harassment and intimidation against the families of detainees who have died in detention under suspicious circumstances."
Canada's Freeland has also launched diplomatic efforts to pressure Iran to let Emami's wife leave, but the men say they hope Canada's prime minister and other members of the international community will also get involved.
"We love our country, we returned and worked in our country with hope for a better future," Mehran said. "We didn't expect such a harsh response from the country we love so much."
More from Newsweek