Iran's sweeping arrests of Ahwazi Arabs 'alarming'
Iran’s intelligence and security forces have rounded up and detained scores of Ahwazi Arabs, including several children, in what appears to be an escalating crackdown in Iran’s Khuzestan province, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.
The rights groups, quoting activists and family members, say many arrests took place in the lead-up to the tenth anniversary of mass anti-government demonstrations that gripped the Arab-populated province in April 2005.
Family members said the arrests have been carried out without warrants by groups of armed masked men affiliated with Iran’s security and intelligence services, usually following home raids of Ahwazi Arab activists during the late evening or early morning hours.
The two human rights organizations say they are concerned that people may have been arrested merely in connection with their perceived political opinions, for peacefully expressing dissent or for openly exhibiting their Arab identity and culture.
“The reported scale of the arrests against Ahwazi Arab activists in recent weeks is deeply alarming,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International.
“Instead of relying on arbitrary arrests, Iranian authorities should release those detained for peacefully demonstrating or speaking out and promptly charge any others with a recognizably criminal offense and ensure they receive a fair trial or release them.”
Iranian authorities should provide the families of all detainees with information about their whereabouts and legal status, demanded the rights groups.
Ahwazi Arab activists outside Iran told Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that security forces have arrested at least 78 people, and possibly more than 100, since mid-March 2015 in the city of Ahwaz, the Khuzestan provincial capital, and surrounding towns and villages following largely peaceful protests.
They said those arrested include people suspected of playing leadership roles in mobilizing local protests.
Iranian authorities have not given a reason for the arrests or revealed the status and whereabouts of the detainees, placing them at increased risk of torture and other ill-treatment, the human rights organizations said.
Security forces arrested Hatam Ebyat, a 35-year-old activist from the town of Hamidieh, on 6 April, after they raided his house at 2 a.m., according to Hossein Moayedi, a friend of Ebyat residing outside Iran.
The authorities have not since given his family any information about his whereabouts and legal status.
Moayedi said that since 2005, the authorities have arrested Ebyat every year before the April anniversary, holding him in solitary confinement in an Intelligence Ministry detention center in Ahwaz without access to his family or lawyer for several weeks.
Ebyat, who has a meat shop in Hamidieh, is mainly active in organizing Eid and other religious and cultural festivities and encouraging youth to wear traditional Arab clothing and participate in peaceful anti-government protests.
Mustafa Haidari, a 17 year-old from the neighbourhood of Koi Alawi in the city of Ahwaz, was arrested on April 7, apparently for his role in planning a peaceful protest to mark the 15 April anniversary.
His uncle, Abdulrahman Haidari, who is outside Iran, told Amnesty International that he is in touch with the family in Koi Alawi and they told him that dozens of armed riot police wearing masks and black uniforms burst into the family home at 2 a.m. on 7 April and arrested the teenager.
The men refused to provide a warrant or provide a reason for his arrest, Abdulrahman Haidari said, adding that the authorities have not since provided any information about Mustafa Haidari’s condition and whereabouts despite the family’s repeated request from the Information Headquarter of the Ministry of Intelligence in Ahwaz.
The latest round of arrests has taken place amid the anger that has swept the province following the death of Younes Asakereh, an Ahwazi Arab street vendor who set himself on fire on 13 March 2015 to protest municipal authorities’ removal and destruction of his fruit stand.
He was denied adequate emergency treatment and transport to Tehran due to lack of funds and died of his injuries on 22 March, a source familiar with the details of his case told Human Rights Watch.
Ahwazi Arab demonstrators then took to the streets in large numbers in the provincial city of Khorramshahr.
There are reports that authorities have repeatedly harassed Asakereh’s family, including delaying delivery of the body to the family and temporarily detaining his father and brother before his burial.
Several days before Asakereh’s death, a protest erupted outside Ahwaz’s Ghadir Stadium after mostly young Ahwazi Arab men displayed a banner during a soccer match between Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal and the local team, Foolad, in the Stadium, that read “We are all Younes!” Police then arrested several dozen men, beating them on their backs and heads.
The police seem to have particularly targeted men dressed in traditional Arab clothing.
Khuzestan province, where much of Iran’s oil and gas reserves are located, has a large Arab population, estimated at between 2.5 and 5 million.
Despite Khuzestan’s natural resource wealth, the province is plagued with severe socioeconomic deprivation and high levels of air and water pollution.
Concentrated in poor urban outskirts lacking in basic facilities, many Iranian Arabs have alleged that the government systematically discriminates against them, particularly in employment, housing, access to political office, and the exercise of cultural, civil and political rights.
The inability to use their mother language as a medium of instruction for primary education is also a source of deep resentment and frustration.
“Instead of intensifying repression, the authorities should address long-standing Ahwazi Arab grievances over entrenched discrimination and denial of cultural rights,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Arbitrary arrests and imprisonment will not make Ahwazi Arab grievances disappear.”