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HRW condemns Iran's violence in Khuzestan

Human Rights Watch has joined Amnesty International and other human rights bodies in raising alarm over the Iranian government's violent repression of Ahwazi Arabs in Khuzestan.

In a statement released today, HRW calls for the immediate release of Ahwazi intellectual Yusuf Azizi Banitaraf and for independent journalists and human rights monitors to be allowed to report on a government crackdown on Arab protestors.

Banitaraf was arrested on 25 April during a press conference called by the Centre for the Defence of Human Rights and his house was ransacked by the police. He had condemned the killing of ethnic Arabs by the security services in Khuzestan.

Other Arab professionals being held by the authorities include: Kazem Asad, Sadegh Sewikiare, Ghasem Nasserian, Kazem Mojadam, Abdolghader Hamadi, Jaber Naam Yahuri, Mojahed Baldi, Salem Beradea, Nabi Manabi, Reza Bani-Saeed and Abood Bani Saeed.

At least 160 Arabs, including women, children and the elderly, were gunned down during a two-week period in April. The violent repression followed a 15 April protest at the the leaking of a letter from President Khatami's office outlining government plans to reduce the Arab population to one third of the total and change the names of Arab towns.

The authorities have closed the Tehran bureau of Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based television network, after its correspondent reported from Ahwaz on the clashes. The government has also banned foreign and Iranian journalists from travelling to Khuzistan.

"The Iranian authorities have again displayed their readiness to silence those who denounce human rights violations," said Joe Stork Washington director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East division. "We have serious allegations the government used excessive lethal force, arbitrary arrests and torture in Khuzestan."

HRW has reported that the government has been releasing only two bodies a week to families, even after collecting fees from them. Residents told the organisation that the government initially demanded a payment of 50,000,000 Iranian rials (US$6,250) for each body, allegedly to compensate for damages to public buildings sustained during the protests. This amount was later reduced to 15,000,000 rials (US$1,875).

HRW has voiced concern, also expressed by Amnesty, that those currently detained by the government are being subjected to poor conditions and possibly torture. The Ahwaz Human Rights Organisation - British Ahwazi Friendship Society's partner in the US - told Human Rights Watch that Sadegh Shoiki, an engineer with the state-owned South Fishing Enterprise (Shilat Jonoob), was detained on April 16 and severely tortured "to a point that he cannot talk, walk or stand." The organisation said that this information came from Shoiki's family, who had visited him in Ahmadabad prison in Abadan.