Despite hopes for improvement and liberalisation under the new administration, the Iranian government has continued to impose tighter controls on the free expression of its ethnic minorities. Ali Younesi, President Hassan Rouhani’s advisor on Ethnic and Religious Minorities in Iran, has come under pressure to explain his remarks that were interpreted as a call for the return of the “empire” with Baghdad as its capital. He explained that his comments were misconstrued and were in fact related to a desire for cultural unity between Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. These comments, seen as being reminiscent of Iran’s expansionist past, have only served to add further fuel to the anger felt by Iran’s marginalised ethnic communities – a result of decades of restrictive policies, arrests and daily harassment of its minorities by the authorities.
Younes Asakereh’s death
“Freedom of expression is a struggle for the Arabs of Iran to attain. These people are killed, arrested, detained and tortured because of their opinion,” human rights advocate, Kamli Alboshoka, reported to ARTICLE 19.
Khuzestan has been the centre of attention of late. This Arab-populated southern region of Iran has been the scene of several protests and consequential arrests over the past months. Increased tension arose in March 2015 when Younes Asakereh, a vendor and father of two, committed self-immolation in protest against the behaviour of municipality officers and the lack of social support from the Iranian authorities. He was denied the adequate emergency treatment required to save his life and died eight days later on 22 March after suffering burns on 92 percent of his body. News of Asakerah’s tragic death gained mass attention on social media and various Arabic-language media, motivating protests in several Arab-majority cities, including Ahwaz and Khorramshahr. Protesters chanted anti-governmental chants leading to numerous clashes with the police.
More than 100 protesters were arrested on 17 March for shouting anti-governmental chants and waving banners that read “We are all Younes” (pictured above), at a football match between Iranian Foolad Khouzestan and Saudi Al-Hilal, reports said.
Reports provided to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch suggest that many of the arrested are suspected of leading the mobilisation of local protests. Citing Ahwazi activists inside Iran, Human Rights Watch notes that “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.”
Although the Iranian local authorities had announced that most of the protesters have been released, ARTICLE 19 has noted that a high number of those arrested remain in detention. Some are now facing criminal charges, though the details of these charges are unclear; ARTICLE 19 shares the increasing concerns that they may have been arrested on the basis of expressing their political opinions, openly exhibiting their Arab identity and peacefully protesting.
“The Iranian security guards attacked the football supporters for both arriving in Arab traditional dress, and bringing Younes Asakereh’s picture to the football Stadium,” Alboshoka informed ARTICLE 19.
Further arrests occurred during Younes Asakereh’s funeral, on March 23, at which thousands protested. Mr Alboshoka informed us that “Iranian security services arrested the massive number of people after mourners took to the streets using anti-government slogans”. Mr Alboshoka recounts the words and sentiment of his sources in Ahwaz, “The self-immolation of Younes Asakereh motivated Iranian Arabs to protest … to share their condolences with Younes’ family and also have their cries heard by the international community against regime’s systematic discrimination against Arabs.”
ARTICLE 19 shares the concerns of the 20 international organisations calling for an investigation into the ongoing harassment of Younes Asakerah’s family.
According to Alboshoka’s sources, the clashes with police led to the death of three Arabs and injuries to numerous others. “One of the victims was teenage Yassin Shalibawi, who was only 17 years old. He was shot by a security guard.” Alboshoka told ARTICLE 19. “The tragic video of Yassin Shalibawi’s death has circulated on Facebook.” Iran is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and as such is obliged to uphold the right to free expression under Article 19 and peaceful assembly.
ARTICLE 19 is concerned by the arrests of numerous children under the age of 18, including Mustafa Haidari. Haidari, a 17-year-old Ahwaz resident, was arrested for his role in the peaceful protests earlier in April. He was arrested at his family home without a warrant. The details of his whereabouts and reasons for his arrest are still unclear, according to Haidari’s family. The recent joint alternative report by civil society organizations, including ARTICLE 19, on the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by the Islamic Republic of Iran, highlights the imprisonment and ill-treatment of children in Iran. The age of majority in Iran should be set at 18 in order to afford children maximum protection.
Censored poem and further arrests of Ahwazi citizens
In the past two months, the Arabs of Iran have witnessed a rise in racial taunts and public humiliations, including those from high ranking Iranian officials. “In an interview with Ahwazi cultural and human rights activists inside Ahwaz … I was informed that persecution and discrimination against Arabs have massively increased, even doubled recently,” Alboshoka told ARTICLE 19.
Such sentiments have intensified since the recent tensions in the Persian Gulf, causing Iranian authorities to scrutinise its Arab citizens with greater intensity. In late March 2015, the Gulf Cooperation Council decided to intervene in Yemen against Houthis, launching a series of airstrikes and declaring Yemen’s airspace “restricted”. This operation, which was severely condemned by Iranian government, was welcomed by many Iranian-Arab activists who tweeted #FreeAhwaz. Iranian-Arab émigrés in Europe also held demonstrations in Brussels and conferences to commemorate what they call a 90-year occupation of Ahwaz. They called for an immediate end to the continued arrests of Ahwazis, and demanded recognition of their right to self-determination, as well as cultural and political independence.
In early April, Ahmad Hazbawi, an Ahwazi poet who wrote a poem praising Saudi’s “Decisive Storm” operation, was arrested in a perfume shop in a small town near Ahwaz for allegedly reciting his poem in front of a peacefully gathered crowd. His arrest has led to protests among Ahwazi Arabs in the Qalta Chanan village, which were again interrupted by the heavy-handed Iranian riot police, leading to arrests. Details as to where Hazbawi is being held and what charges he is facing are still unclear.
Worryingly, arrests and detentions have continued throughout April. On April 14, a wave of arbitrary arrests commenced against the citizens of Ahwaz and Hamidieh. In a report released by HRANA, some names of the detainees were made public: Hatam Abiat, Moslem Khosraji, Ahmad Marmazi, Salem Atshaei, Hadi Marwani, Malek Shakhi, Mahmood Sawari, Basem Batrani, Mostafa Heidari, and Riaz Fars. The authorities have not given clear information about the location of the detainees, nor why they were arrested.
Little is known about the motivations behind the recent wave of arrests due to a lack of clear justification given by the Iranian authorities. This increasing clampdown on Iran’s marginalised Arab communities must be halted. The Arab citizens of Iran retain the right to peacefully protest and voice their opinions. The right to protest and freedom of expression are protected under international law; rights that the Iranian authorities are stripping from its Arab citizens.