Iran: Sweeping arrests of Ahwazi Arab activists

Whereabouts of more than 75 held after protests remains unknown


Photo: Riot police arresting an Ahwazi Arab man outside Qadir Stadium in the city of Ahvaz. Police arrested dozens of men that day, targeting in particularly men dressed in traditional Arabic clothing. © Private

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  said today.


According to activists and family members, 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 human rights organizations expressed concern 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.”

The reported scale of the arrests against Ahwazi Arab activists in recent weeks is deeply alarming
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International's Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director

Iranian authorities should provide the families of all detainees with information about their whereabouts and legal status, the organizations said.

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 Ahvaz, 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 Ahvaz without access to his family or lawyer for several weeks. Moayedi said that during past arrests Ebyat was severely beaten and tortured to obtain “confessions” about “having relationships with foreign states” and “engaging in armed activities,” and then released on a hefty bail.

Moayedi said that Ebyat has always told his interrogators that he does not support armed activities and only seeks the rights guaranteed to minorities in Iran’s constitution. 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 Ahvaz, 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 Ahvaz.

Abdulrahman Haidari said his family told him that the same evening riot police also arrested several other men from the neighbourhood, including Mustafa Haidari’s neighbours Basem Batrani and Mahmoud Sawari, who were also involved in planning an anniversary protest.

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 Ahvaz’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.

As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iran has an obligation to respect the right to freedom of expression (Article 19) and peaceful assembly (Article 21). It also must ensure that ethnic and linguistic minorities are not denied “the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture…or to use their own language” (Article 27). Similar guarantees are provided under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, including in Articles 2 and 15, which recognize the right to take part in cultural life without discrimination.

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.”

Instead of intensifying repression, the authorities should address long-standing Ahwazi Arab grievances over entrenched discrimination and denial of cultural rights
Joe Stork, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch

Background

Protests and Arrests
On 17 March, several days after Asakereh’s self-immolation, mostly young Ahwazi Arab men displayed a banner at a soccer match between Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal and the local team, Foolad, in Ahvaz’s Ghadir Stadium, that read “We are all Younes!” in Arabic, and chanted “We sacrifice our blood and soul for you Ahvaz!” (bi'r-ruh bi'd-dem nefdik ya Ahvaz). Pictures and video recordings reviewed by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch from that day appear to show a large numbers of riot police cars surrounding the stadium and blocking the exits at the end of the match. 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. The rights organizations could not independently verify the authenticity of the videos and images.

The security response sparked disorder and clashes outside the Stadium on March 17 between police and protesters, some of whom threw stones and other objects at the police. The rights groups received information from activists outside Iran that authorities intend to prosecute 17-year-old Sajad Bouazar in Ahvaz Revolutionary Court for his alleged role in setting a police car on fire during the 17 March clashes, although it was not possible to independently confirm the information.

On 18 March, the provincial deputy police chief, Col. Rahman Mousawi, denied that riot police targeted people with traditional Arabic clothing and announced that all those arrested have since been released. Ahwazi Arab rights groups outside the country said they were in touch with families in Ahvaz and they believe many of those arrested on 17 March are still detained with their whereabouts remaining unknown. Those still detained include, according to Ahwazi Arab rights group outside Iran, Reda Naqrawi, Ali Hanoun Sawari, Hassan Sawari, Mohammad Sawari, Hamid Sawari, Sayed Said Sawari and Majed Sawari. The rights group said that fear of reprisal prevented the families from speaking directly with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to verify whether the men remain in detention.

On 8 April, security forces arrested Ahmad Hazbawi after a video, the authenticity of which Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch could not independently verify, went viral on the internet that appears to show him singing a song in Arabic praising Saudi Arabia’s military action in Yemen, to a jubilant audience at a wedding ceremony in the village of Qalaat Chanan near Ahvaz. A relative outside Iran told Amnesty International that several plain-clothes intelligence officials, accompanied by armed men in black uniforms and masks, went to Hazbawi’s small shop around 6 p.m. and beat and dragged him to their car, then abducted him. He added that officials also detained Hazbawi’s wife at an Intelligence Ministry detention facility for several hours the next day when she went to seek information about his whereabouts, but later freed her. There is no information currently available about him.

On 14 April, security forces arrested Mehdi Cheldawi, a 23-year-old Ahwazi Arab activist from the neighbourhood of Koi Alawi. His brother, Ali Cheldawi, who is outside Iran, told Amnesty International that plain-clothes intelligence officers raided the family house without a warrant at 4 a.m. and arrested Cheldawi. The officers refused to answer his father’s questions about the reasons for the arrest and where his son was being taken, according to Ali Cheldawi.

Ali Cheldawi said that Mehdi Cheldawi suffered from internal bleeding and a ruptured eardrum resulting from torture and other ill-treatment at the hands of Ahvaz intelligence officials during a previous eight-month long detention in 2014.

The Legacy of the 2005 Protests

In the wake of the unrest that coincided with the 10th anniversary of the 2005 mass demonstrations, scattered groups of young men in impoverished Arab-populated neighbourhoods in Ahvaz such as Malashiya and Koi Alawi have gathered in the streets chanting as night falls. This area has been referred to since 2005 as the district of “Revolution” (Al-Thoura) by its Arab residents. Ahwazi Arab sources report that men from nearby towns or villages such as Kot Abdollah, Hamidieh, Sosangerd (also known as Khafajieh), Qala'at Chan’an, Shush and Dar Khewain sometimes join these gatherings or organize similar ones in their own areas.
The 2005 protests erupted following the publication of a letter allegedly written by then Vice-President Mohammad Ali Abtahi. The letter referred to government plans to implement policies that would reduce the proportion of Arabs in Khuzestan’s population. After security forces tried to disperse the demonstrators and opened fire on them, clashes between protesters and security forces turned violent. The next day, Abtahi and other government officials denied the authenticity of the letter, calling it fake. Security forces reportedly killed at least 50 protesters and detained hundreds more during the 2005 protests.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented arbitrary arrests, detentions and torture, against Ahwazi Arab protesters and activists in recent years. Since 2005, authorities have executed at least 37 Ahwazi Arabs following unfair trials, including at least two designated by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience, Hadi Rashedi and Hashem Shabani from Al-Hiwar Cultural Institute. Based on the circumstances and treatment of previous Ahwazi Arab detainees linked to protests, those recently arrested in March and April 2015 could be held incommunicado and in solitary confinement in one of the Intelligence Ministry’s undisclosed detention centres in Ahvaz placing them at increased risk of torture and other ill-treatment.

The 2005 crackdown led to a cycle of violence throughout Khuzestan province, including several fatal bomb attacks in June and October 2005 and in January 2006 that killed 12 people. In response, the Iranian government imprisoned large numbers of activists it claimed were Arab separatists responsible for terrorist attacks against civilians, and sentenced more than a dozen people to death on terrorism-related charges after unfair trials relying on evidence obtained through torture and other ill-treatment.

On 2 April 2015, Iranian media reported that unknown assailants had attacked and killed three police officers, two of whom were themselves Arab, in Hamidieh, injuring two others. Several days later, on 21 April, Iranian officials announced they had captured the suspects. It is not clear if the attack was politically motivated or had other reasons behind it.

Names of people reported arrested (with their age, when available) in Khuzestan Province since 17 March provided by Ahwazi activists outside Iran. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch could not independently verify whether the individuals listed were arrested or remain in detention.

Ahvaz, Koi Alawi Neighbourhood
1. Basem Batrani
2. Mehdi Cheldawi (23)
3. Hakim Doraqi
4. Raed Fares
5. A. Hashem
6. Ahmad Haidari (31)
7. Ali Haidari (37)
8. Mustafa Haidari (17)
9. Ali Mousawi
10. Reda Naqrawi
11. Ali Sawari
12. Basem Sawari
13. Hamid Sawari
14. Hassan Sawari
15. Majed Sawari
16. Mahmoud Sawari
17. Mohammad Sawari
18. Sayed Said Sawari
19. Reza Sayahi (23)
Ahvaz, Malashiya Neighbourhood
20. Mohammad Afrawi (24)
21. Mohammad Bawi (27)
22. Sadeq Haidari (25)
23. Khaled Sharifi (23)
24. Hasaan Sawari
25. Majed Sudani (24)
Ahvaz, Darvishieh Neighbourhood
26. Maki Doraqi (28)
Ahvaz, Qalat Chanan Village
27. Ahmad Hazbawi
Ahvaz, Arab Rashid Village
28. Shiekh Qasam Bawi (50)
Hamidieh
29. Abed Ebyat
30. Hatam Ebyat (35)
31. Abbas Aninpour (34)
32. Salem Atshani (37)
33. Mohammad Halafi (24)
34. Ali Hardani (32)
35. Moslem Khasraji
36. Hadi Marmazi (23)
37. Ahmad Marmazi
38. Hadi Marwani (23)
39. Ahamd Mohamadi
40. Adel Neisi (30)
41. Mohammad Neisi (25)
42. Saeed Neisi (28)
43. Malek Shakhi (25)
44. Mehdi Sayahi (23)
45. Yousef Sayahi (34)
46. Hadi Obaidawi (31)
47. Mahmoud Obaidawi (20)
48. Qais Obaidawi (25)
49. Mohammad Sayyahi
50. Hakim Zabi (25)
Shush, Hamidabad Village
51. Sayed Alawi
52. Mohammad Chenani (21)
53. Sheikh Farhan Qasem Mohammed Chenani
54. Sheikh Khaled Shoja Ali Zamel Chenani
55. Sheikh Anat Mohammad Chenani
56. Mohammad Dabbat
57. Hassan Dabbat
58. Hamed Hussein (15)
59. Mustafa Kaabi (23)
60. Mohammad Motar (19)
Khoramshahr, Dor Khewain Village
61. Adnan Zewidat (26)
62. Adel Zewaidat (25)
63. Emad Zewaidat (19)
64. Milad Zewaidat (19)
65. Nabil Zewaidat (19)
66. Saad Zewaidat (30)
Susangerd
67. Mustafa Haidari (25)
68. Reza Haidari (32)
69. Hassoun Jallali
70. Rasoul Naderi
71. Mohamad Jawad Sabhani(18)
72. Ali Saeedi (23)
73. Mahdi Saidi
74. Sadeq Sawari (24)
75. Aliraza Obidawi (18)
Khoramshahr
76. Javad Matouri (30)
Abadan
77. Mohammad Nesari
Howiza City
78. Sajjad Bou’zar (17)