The persecution of Ahwazi Arabs and the takeover of their land has led to accusations of ‘ethnic cleansing’.
“NEVER AGAIN” is, I fear, a phrase that we may hear again all too soon – but too late to warn people, let alone save lives. Under the cover of secrecy the fundamentalist regime in Tehran is waging a sustained, bloody campaign of intimidation and persecution against its Arab minority. These Arabs believe that they are victims of “ethnic cleansing” by Iran’s Persian majority.
Sixteen Arab rights activists have been sentenced to death, according to reports in the Iranian media. They were found guilty of insurgency in secret trials before revolutionary courts. But most of the defendants were convicted solely on the basis of confessions extracted under torture. Ten are expected to be hanged in a couple of weeks, after the end of Ramadan. Amnesty International says that two of those sentenced to die, Abdolreza Nawaseri and Nazem Bureihi, were in prison when they were alleged to have been involved in bomb attacks. Three others – Hamza Sawaeri, Jafar Sawari and Reisan Sawari – say that they were nowhere near the Zergan oilfield the day it was bombed.
The death sentences seem designed to silence protests by Iran’s persecuted ethnic Arabs. They comprise 70 per cent of the population of the south-west province of Khuzestan, known locally as Ahwaz. Many Ahwazis believe that the 16 were framed and that their real “crime” was campaigning against Tehran’s repression and exploitation of their oil-rich homeland.
Further show trials are planned – 50 Ahwazi Arab activists have been charged with insurgency since last year. 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.
Securing information about the impending hangings has been difficult. The authorities are notoriously secretive, often withholding information about charges, evidence and sentences. Foreign journalists are severely restricted and local reporters are intimidated with threats of imprisonment. Despite this official obfuscation, human rights groups confirm a new wave of repression against Ahwazi Arabs who accuse Tehran of “ethnic cleansing” and racism. Ali Afrawi, 17, and Mehdi Nawaseri, 20, were publicly hanged in March for allegedly participating in insurgency. 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 at around the same time.
Tehran’s latest tactic is to hold Ahwazi children as hostages. According to Amnesty International, children as young as 2 have been jailed with their mothers to force their fugitive, political-activist fathers to surrender to the police. Protests against these abuses are brutally suppressed. Ahwazi political parties, trade unions and student groups are illegal. In the past year, 25,000 Ahwazis have been arrested, 131 executed and 150 have disappeared, reports AHRO. The bodies of many of those executed have been dumped in a place that the Government calls lanat abad, the place of the damned. They are buried in shallow graves; dogs dig up and eat the bodies.
Nearly 250,000 Arabs have been displaced from their villages after the Iranian Government’s confiscation of more than 200,000 hectares of farmland for a huge sugar-cane project. Dozens more towns and villages will be erased, making a possible further 400,000 Ahwazis homeless, by the creation of a military-industrial security zone, covering more than 3,000 sq km, along the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which borders Iraq.
Ironically, the Hezbollah in Lebanon – 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 training camps for Hezbollah and for the Badr Brigades, the Iraqi fundamentalist militia. Badr death squads in Iraq are murdering Sunnis, unveiled women, gay people, men wearing shorts, barbers, sellers of alcohol and people listening to Western music.
Tehran has a grand plan to make the Ahwazi a minority in their own land through “ethnic restructuring”. Financial incentives, such as zero- interest loans, are given to ethnic Persians to settle in Ahwaz. New townships are planned, which will house 500,000 non-Arabs. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of displaced Ahwazis eke out a subsistence existence in shanty towns on the outskirts of Ahwaz city. Others have been forcibly relocated to poverty-stricken, far-flung northern regions of Iran.
Ahwaz produces 90 per cent of Iran’s oil and Tehran expropriates all the revenues. An attempt by Ahwaz MPs to secure the repatriation of 1.5 per cent of these earnings back to the region for welfare projects was rejected this year. Yet it is the third poorest region of Iran: 80 per cent of the children suffer from malnutrition, and the unemployment rate of Arabs is more than five times that of Persians.
Arab language newspapers and textbooks have been banned to crush Arab identity further. In Ahwaz schools, all instruction is in Farsi (Persian), resulting in a 30 per cent drop-out rate at primary level and 50 per cent at secondary level. Illiteracy rates among Arabs are at least four times those of non-Arabs.
Contrary to Tehran’s nationalist propaganda most Ahwazi Arabs just want a measure of self-government; they are not hellbent on independence or in league with the CIA or plotting for an American invasion. Quite the contrary, they fear that Western sabre-rattling will be used as a pretext by Tehran’s hardliners to crack down savagely on dissent. Which makes it all the more disturbing that one of the few bodies with diplomatic muscle – the Arab League, which professes pan-Arab solidarity – is so silent in the face of Iran’s persecution of Arabs.