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Amnesty condemns Iran's treatment of ethnic minorities

The administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has come under severe criticism from Amnesty International in a report entitled "New government fails to address dire human rights situation", which was published this week.

Amnesty focusses on the treatment of ethnic minorities, particularly the Ahwazi Arabs, Kurds and Azeri Turks, but notes that Balochis, Turkmen and nomads also face persecution.

Sections of the report relating to Ahwazi Arabs have been reproduced below. Click here for the full report.

Despite constitutional guarantees of equality, individuals belonging to minorities in Iran, who are believed to number about half of the population of about 70 millions, are subject to an array of discriminatory laws and practices. These include land and property confiscations, denial of state and para-statal employment under the gozinesh criteria and restrictions on social, cultural, linguistic and religious freedoms which often result in other human rights violations such as the imprisonment of prisoners of conscience, grossly unfair trials of political prisoners before Revolutionary Courts, corporal punishment and use of the death penalty, as well as restrictions on movement and denial of other civil rights.

Some of the problems currently confronting Iran's minority groups were brought to international attention by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, when he visited the country in July 2005. In his preliminary findings he noted that minorities were subject to discrimination in the distribution of state resources, in access to and the quality of housing, water and sanitation provided in the areas of the country where they reside, and are disproportionately affected by policies of "land grabbing".

The mainly Shi'a-Muslim Arab community in Iran constitutes between 3 per cent and 8 per cent of the total population. The Arab community lives mainly in Khuzestan province (known as Ahwaz by the Arab community) adjoining Iraq, the location of much of Iran's oil resources. Members of Iran's Arab community have a long-standing grievance against successive governments, claiming that Arabs have been overlooked in terms of the distribution of resources aimed at social development. Frustration and economic deprivation has spilled over in recent months into a cycle of violent protest and repression which seems likely to continue unless the Iranian authorities take the measures necessary to address the social, economic and other grievances that gave rise to the unrest.

Economic, social and cultural rights: The Arab population of Iran is one of the most economically and socially deprived in Iran. Even where the majority of the local population is Arab, schools are reportedly not allowed to teach through the medium of Arabic; illiteracy rates are reportedly high, especially among Ahwazi Arab women in rural areas. Arabs have also reportedly been denied state employment under the gozinesh criteria. Many villages and settlements reportedly have little or no access to clean running water, sanitation or other utilities such as electricity.

Amnesty International has received reports that the water supply in Ahwaz City is subject to frequent and irregular cuts, apparently resulting from the diversion of water from the Karoun River to cities such as Esfahan and Sanandaj. In December 2005, the situation was reportedly so dire that people were unable to shower more than once a week, and were being forced to buy drinking water from tankers in the street. Also in December 2005, members of the Majles representing Khuzestan province reportedly launched a petition to impeach the Minister of Energy over the continued diversion of water from the Karoun River to Rafsanjan and Esfahan provinces and in January 2006 reportedly threatened to resign en masse if the diversion continued. It has also been reported that, despite the province's water shortages, water from the Karkhe River, which passes through the Ahwazi Arab area of Howizeh and Boustan, is diverted for sale to Kuwait.

Furthermore, land expropriation by the Iranian authorities is reportedly so widespread that it appears to amount to a policy aimed at dispossessing Arabs of their traditional lands. This is apparently part of a strategy aimed at the forcible relocation of Arabs to other areas while facilitating the transfer of non-Arabs into Khuzestan and is linked to economic policies such as zero interest loans which are not available to local Arabs.

In October 2005, a letter came to light, dated 9 July 2005, in which the Arvand Free Trade Zone Organization outlined plans for the confiscation of 155 sq km, including Arab land and villages, to provide for the establishment of the Arvand Free Trade Zone between Abadan and the Iraqi border. All those living within this area will have their land confiscated. Under Iranian law, no challenge can be made to the confiscation, only to the amount of compensation offered, which in other schemes is reported to have been as little as one fortieth of the market value.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing said in an interview following his visit to Iran in July 2005:

... when you visit Ahwaz ... there are thousands of people living with open sewers, no sanitation, no regular access to water, electricity and no gas connections ... why is that? Why have certain groups not benefited? ... Again in Khuzestan, ... we drove outside the city about 20 km and we visited the areas where large development projects are coming up - sugar cane plantations and other projects along the river - and the estimate we received is that between 200,000 - 250,000 Arab people are being displaced from their villages because of these projects. And the question that comes up in my mind is, why is it that these projects are placed directly on the lands that have been homes for these people for generations? I asked the officials, I asked the people we were with. And there is other land in Khuzestan where projects could have been placed which would have minimised the displacement.


He also referred to attempts by the government to transfer non-Arabs into the area, as in the case of Shirinshah, a new town mainly populated by non-Arab inhabitants from Yazd province, and highlighted the discrepancy between the wealth generated from the oil resources of Khuzestan and the very deprived Arab neighbourhoods he saw.

Use of force: Since President Ahmadinejad's election, several people have been killed and scores injured by security forces possibly using excessive force, in the context of ongoing violent unrest in Khuzestan Province. This began in April 2005 and has included bomb explosions in Ahwaz city in October 2005 and January 2006 which killed at least 12 people and injured hundreds, and attacks on the economically important oil installations in September and October 2005. The Iranian authorities have accused the United Kingdom (UK) government of involvement in the blasts, which the UK has denied.

In mid-September 2005, Iranian security forces were reported to have used live ammunition, tear gas and beatings with batons to suppress stone-throwing demonstrators. At least two people were reported killed and many injured. The authorities were later reported to have cut off the water supplies to some villages of the al-Bughobeysh tribe, possibly in reprisal for the inhabitants having participated in the demonstrations.

On 4 November 2005, Id al-Fitr, possibly partly in protest at earlier arrests (see below), several hundred Arab Iranian demonstrators began marching towards the centre of Ahwaz city, where they met Iranian security forces. Scuffles may have broken out. Iranian security forces reportedly fired tear gas grenades at the crowd. Two Arab youths affected by the tear gas, which is said to have caused a temporary paralysis, reportedly drowned after falling into the Karoun River. Scores, if not hundreds, of demonstrators were arrested. Amnesty International wrote to the Iranian authorities urging that these deaths be investigated, and asking for clarification of the rules governing the use of force and firearms by Iranian law enforcement officials and whether in this instance there were attempts made to disperse the crowd by non-violent means and whether the crowd was warned before tear-gas was used. By early February 2006, no reply had been received.

At least three men were reported killed, and around 40 injured, on 11 and 12 January 2006 in clashes in Khuzestan between Iranian security forces and members of the Arab Ahwazi community. The clashes followed an initially peaceful demonstration on ‘Id al-Adha, the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice. The demonstrators were reportedly demanding an end to Arab persecution, poverty and unemployment, and the release of political prisoners arrested since April 2005.

Detention: Hundreds of Arabs have been arrested since President Ahmadinejad's election and many are feared to have been tortured or ill-treated. The prisons in Khuzestan province, and particularly the capital Ahwaz, are reported to be extremely overcrowded as a result of the large numbers of arrests. One ex-detainee is said to have estimated that during his time in detention, there may have been over 3,000 prisoners held in Karoun Prison, reportedly designed to accommodate about 800 and that the cells were so crowded that detainees were forced to sleep in shifts, as there was insufficient space for them all to lie down at once. This degree of over-crowding reportedly led to extremely unsanitary conditions. Children as young as 12 are reported to have been detained with adult prisoners. Some of those detained are believed to have been sentenced to imprisonment or death after grossly unfair trials before Revolutionary Courts.

Of those reported detained since the election of President Ahmadinejad, Amnesty International has received the names of over 250. Some illustrative cases are outlined below.

In August, Hajj Salem Bawi, an Arab tribal leader and businessman, his five sons, nephew and two other members of his extended family were detained. Hajj Salem Bawi was later released, but two of his sons, Imad and Zamel, were reportedly sentenced to death in October 2005. The precise charges of which they were convicted are not known to Amnesty International. Hajj Salem Bawi reported after his release that he had met three of his sons in Amaniya prison in Ahwaz city and could see that they had been ill-treated or tortured in detention. By December 2005, none of those still held were known to have had access to lawyers or their families.

Hamid Gate'Pour, the manager of education in Area 2 of Ahwaz city, was arrested on or around 15 September 2005 in Area 2 of Ahwaz city. Mohammad Hezbawi, the editor of Hamsaye, a regional newspaper, was arrested on 18 September 2005, possibly in connection with an article he had published about the arrest of Hamid Gate'pour, and released after several days.

At least 81 people were arrested on 3 November 2005 during the week preceding the end of Ramadan, Id al-Fitr, whilst attending an Arab cultural gathering called Mahabis which traditionally takes place during the iftar (breaking of the fast). Those arrested included Zahra Nasser-Torfi, director of the Ahwaz al-Amjad cultural centre who was reportedly tortured in detention; Hamid Haydari, a poet; and six members of the same family: Mohammad Mojadam, Hamid Mojadam, Mehdi Mojadam, Rasoul Mojadam, Khaled Bani-Saleh and Hassan Naisi. On 14 November 2005 a number of those people were reportedly released on bail to await trial, including Zahra Nasser-Torfi.

Scores of people, including at least three children, were arrested on 11 January 2006 following clashes with security forces following an initially peaceful demonstration (see above), led by Sheikh Saleh al-Haydari, the Imam (prayer leader) of Da'ira mosque in Ahwaz. He was among those detained and reportedly began a hunger strike on 25 January 2006 to protest at his detention. The next day, 12 January 2006, scores more were detained in the city of Hamidiya, after a demonstration against the arrests which had taken place the previous day.

Amnesty International is concerned about the violation of economic, social and cultural rights of persons belonging to minorities in Iran. Iran is a state party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), as well as to the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) which require the immediate prohibition, and steps towards the elimination of discrimination against minorities, in the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights, including the rights to free choice of employment, to housing, to education, to equal participation in cultural activities and to social services. Reports of huge disparities between minority communities and majority groups in literacy, access to education, basic services such as adequate water supplies, sanitation and electricity, as well as reports of "land grabbing" which appears to target minority communities, all suggest that Iran is failing to comply with these international obligations.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination stated in paragraph 14 its concluding observations in 2004: "The Committee takes note with concern of the reported discrimination faced by certain minorities, including the Baha'is, who are deprived of certain rights, and that certain provisions of the State party's legislation appear to be discriminatory on both ethnic and religious grounds.

The Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights has stated in relation to Article 11(1) of the ICESCR, which provides the right to adequate housing, that forced evictions from a place of habitual residence without consultation, due process or assurance of adequate alternative accommodation are prohibited. The Human Rights Committee (HRC), has stated in relation to Article 12(3) of the ICCPR: "the right to reside in a place of one's choice within the territory includes protection against all forms of forced internal displacement It also precludes preventing the entry or stay of persons in a defined part of the territory."

Amnesty International is calling on the Iranian government to take urgent, concrete measures to address the longstanding pattern of human rights violations and to ensure that all the fundamental human rights of all persons in Iran are protected irrespective of their gender, ethnicity, religious faith or other such defining characteristics. In particular, Amnesty International urges the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to take the following steps:

- End any policy of deliberate land expropriation or population transfer aimed at dispossessing minority populations from their traditional lands;

- Cease any practice of forced evictions: that is evicting people from land or housing without consultation, due process of law, and assurances of adequate alternative accommodation;

- Cease forced internal displacement linked to forced evictions and "land grabbing";

- Take immediate steps towards the elimination of de facto discrimination in the exercise of economic, social and cultural rights such as rights to education, adequate housing, water and sanitation as well as in access to utilities such as electricity adopting special measures, such as multilingual education, as necessary.