Tehran’s ethnic cleansing of Ahwazi Arabs.
Tribune – Labour’s left-wing weekly
London – 27 October 2006
Iran is waging a secret, racist war against its Arab population. The latest victim is Dr Awdeh Afrawi, a respected Arab Iranian psychologist and human rights advocate. Despite a lack of evidence, he has been jailed for 20 years – supposedly for bombing oil installations.
Dr Afrawi is lucky. Sixteen other Arab rights activists have been sentenced to death. Found guilty of insurgency in secret trials before Revolutionary Courts, none had proper legal representation. Human Rights Watch confirms that lawyers for many of the condemned men “did not have an opportunity to meet with their clients.” Most of the defendants were convicted solely on the basis of confessions extracted under torture. Amnesty International says two of those sentenced to die, Abdolreza Nawaseri and Nazem Bureihi, were in prison at the time when they were alleged to have been involved in bomb attacks.
Some of the 16 condemned Arabs recently had their sentences referred back to the courts for reevalution, after their families staged vigils and hunger-strikes that embarrassed the regime. But the rest are likely to be hanged in the coming weeks.
The death sentences seem designed to silence protests by Iran ‘s persecuted ethnic Arabs. They comprise 70% of the population of the south-west province of Khuzestan, which Iranian Arabs call Ahwaz. Many Ahwazis believe the activists were framed. Their real ‘crime’ is campaigning against Tehran’s political repression and economic exploitation of their oil-rich homeland.
More show trials are scheduled – 50 Ahwazi Arab activists have been charged with insurgency since 2005. They are accused of being “Mohareb” or enemies of god, which is a capital crime. Other allegations include sabotage and possession of home-made bombs. No material evidence has been offered to support the charges. All face possible execution.
In a recent letter to the chief of the judiciary, Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi, one of Iran’s leading human rights activists, Emadeddin Baghi, said that the trials of Ahwazi Arabs were flawed, the charges baseless, and that the sentencing was based on a spurious interpretation of the law.
Human rights groups confirm a new wave of repression against Ahwazi Arabs. Ali Afrawi (17) and Mehdi Nawaseri (20) were publicly hanged in March, for allegedly participating in insurgency. They were hanged using the strangulation method, designed to cause a slow and painful death. Amnesty International condemned their trial as “unfair.” They were denied access to lawyers. The Ahwazi Human Rights Organisation (AHRO) says that seven other Arab political prisoners were secretly executed in jail at around the same time.
Tehran ‘s has recently stooped to taking Ahwazi children hostage. According to Amnesty International, kids as young as two have been jailed with their mothers, in a bid to force their political activist fathers, who are on the run and in hiding, to surrender to the police.
Protests against these abuses are brutally suppressed. Since April 2005, 25,000 Ahwazis have been arrested, 131 killed and 150 have disappeared, reports AHRO. The bodies of many of those executed have been dumped in a place the Iranian government calls “Lanat Abad”, the place of the damned. They are buried in shallow graves. Dogs dig up and eat the bodies.
Ahwazi political parties, trade unions and student groups are illegal. Arab candidates have been barred from standing for election. Among those excluded is Jasem Shadidzadeh Al-Tamimi, the secretary-general of the reformist Wefagh Party and an MP for Ahwaz from 2000-04. He was barred from seeking re-election in 2004 and his party was banned for attempting to express Ahwazi concerns using lawful and constitutional means.
Ahwazis allege anti-Arab persecution by the Persian-dominated Tehran regime, which they accuse of “racism” and “ethnic cleansing.” Other minority nationalities face similar oppression by “Persian chauvinists”: Kurds, Azeris, Turkmen and Baluchis. While the Arab League professes pan-Arab solidarity, it does nothing to challenge Iran ‘s abuse of Ahwazi Arabs.
Tehran has a secret plan to resolve ‘the Arab problem’ by making Arabs a minority in their own land through ‘ethnic restructuring.’ The plan is to cut the Arab population in Ahwaz from over two-thirds of the total to under one-third. It encourages ethnic Persians to settle in the region by offering financial incentives, such as zero-interest loans, and by building new townships to house 500,000 non-Arab incomers. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of displaced Arabs have been forcibly relocated to poverty-stricken far-flung northern regions of Iran .
Already, 250,000 Arabs have been uprooted from their villages following the Iranian government’s confiscation of 200,000 hectares of farmland for a massive sugar cane project. Compensation was in some cases less than 3% of the market value of the land, notes Miloon Kothari of the UNCHR.
A further 400,000 Ahwazis Arabs face displacement by the creation of the new military-industrial Arvand Free Zone (AFZ) covering over 3,000 square kilometres, along the Shatt Al-Arab waterway, which borders Iraq. Dozens of Ahwazi towns and villages will be erased and their inhabitants dispersed. According to the Iranian media, the British government has been involved in discussions on investing in the AFZ.
Ironically, Lebanon ‘s Hezbollah – the supposed embodiment of Arab resistance in the Middle East – is complicit in the displacement of Ahwazi Arabs. On confiscated Arab land, Tehran has set up military training camps for Hezbollah and for the Iraqi fundamentalist militia, the Badr Brigades. Badr death squads in Iraq are assassinating Sunni Muslims, unveiled women, gay people, men wearing shorts, barbers, sellers of alcohol and people listening to western music. They are also killing British soldiers. Many of the killers received their training in Ahwaz .
Ahwaz produces 90% of Iran ‘s oil and 10% of OPEC’s global output. Tehran expropriates 100% of oil revenues. A bid by Ahwaz MPs to secure the repatriation of 1.5% of these earnings back to the region for expenditure on social welfare projects was rejected in January 2006. The result? Ahwaz is the region of Iran with the third greatest level of poverty. Half the population are impoverished and 80% of children suffer from malnutrition, according to an AHRO report to the UNCHR in 2004. The unemployment rate of Arabs is more than five times that of Persians.
In a bid to crush Arab ethnic identity, Tehran has banned Arab language newspapers and educational text books. Borrowing from the tactics of the apartheid regime in South Africa , which compelled school lessons in the oppressor language of Afrikaans, Tehran has made instruction in Farsi (Persian) compulsory in Ahwazi schools. The result is a 30% Arab drop-out rate at primary level and a 50% drop-out rate at secondary level. Illiteracy rates among Arabs are at least four times those of non-Arabs.
Contrary to Tehran ‘s propaganda, the vast majority of Ahwazi Arabs reject separatism. They want regional self-government, not independence. Nor do they support a US invasion. This would, they argue, strengthen the position of the hardliners in Tehran , allowing President Ahmadinejad to use the pretext of defence and security to play the nationalist card and to further crack down on dissent. Many Ahwazis believe the route to reform is an internal alliance of Iranian democrats, leftists, trade unionists, minority nationalities and local civic organisations.