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Ahwazi mother and son released by the Iranian regime


Habib Nabgani has confirmed the release on bail of his wife Masouma Kaabi and their four-year-old son Aimad, who are members of Iran's persecuted Ahwazi Arab minority.

Masouma and Aimad were arrested on 8 March and were imprisoned in Sepidar prison in an effort to force Habib, a leading member of the moderate Wefagh Party, to return to Iran. Habib had been told that his wife and child would be tortured and executed if he did not return to face trial and possible execution on trumped-up charges by the regime. They were released from custody on 28 April.

A number of other wives and children of Ahwazi opposition figures remain in prison, including: Hoda Hawashem and her sons Ahmad (4) and Osameh (2), Soghra Khudayrawi and Zeidan (4) and Fahima Ismail Badawi and her baby daughter Salma, who was born in prison on 25 March. Sakina Naisi is also still in prison where she has had an abortion due to her poor treatment by her captors.

The incarceration of women and children by the regime in an attempt to terrorise opposition activists has largely backfired, leading to widespread international condemnation and helping to unify the Ahwazi anti-government opposition. It has been a public relations disaster for the regime as well as a rallying point for the Ahwazi movement, which is highlighting the abuse and persecution of some 4.5 million Arabs in southwest Iran.

The release of Masouma and Aimad on undisclosed bail conditions is seen as a breakthrough by the Ahwaz Human Rights Organisation (AHRO), which had championed the cause of Ahwazi women and children held in Iranian custody. The British Ahwazi Friendship Society (BAFS) had also brought international attention to their cause, working with Ahwazi groups to stage a series of public demonstrations in the UK and winning over the support of senior European politicians and human rights activists. Amnesty International has also condemned the imprisonment of Ahwazi women and children as a result of AHRO's campaign efforts.

The Wefagh Party, led by former member of parliament Jasem Shadidzadeh, has campaigned for Arab rights but remains opposed to separatism, marking out a moderate and democratic middle-way between the Islamic Republic and Arab separatist groups. Habib had applied to stand for election in the 2004 parliamentary elections, but his candidacy was rejected by the powerful Council of Guardians. The government's refusal to allow the emergence of democratic Arab parties has fuelled unrest in Al-Ahwaz (Khuzestan).

Habib is widely regarded as a moderate in the Ahwazi community. The arrest of his wife and son has been a major obstacle in efforts by the regime to forge a deal with tribal leaders in the province, with talks facilitated by local member of parliament Dr Nasser Sudani and former defence minister Ali Shamkhani, both of whom are among the few Ahwazi Arabs trusted by the regime. However, progress towards serious negotiations is only possible when all political prisoners are released and a ban on the right to protest and form political parties is lifted. In the mean time, unrest is likely to continue.

BAFS spokesman Nasser Bani Assad said: "We are delighted with Masouma and Aimad's release from prison. This is a victory for those groups that have taken up the pen and not the gun in the campaign for Ahwazi Arab rights. This is a vindication of the campaign efforts of AHRO and BAFS and shows that achievements can be won without the force of arms.

"Iran should now immediately release all remaining Ahwazi prisoners of conscience, particularly children. The abuse of human rights only serves to isolate Iran further and child abuse simply will not be tolerated either by Ahwazis or by the international community.

"If Iran is serious about dialogue with the Ahwazis, it should first take the necessary steps to respects the rights granted to them by the UN Conventions that Iran itself has ratified and Iran's own constitution. Secondly, it must start taking seriously Ahwazi demands for equality, devolution of power, democracy, human and cultural rights, redistribution of oil wealth and an end to land confiscation.

"We do not believe that the regime will survive in its current form if it goes down this road and we do not believe that President Ahmadinejad or his allies are serious about compromise with Ahwazi Arabs. But in the long-term, Iran's rulers have the option of adapting to the demands of Iran's democratic currents, including the Ahwazi movement, or be toppled by the gathering uprising. The Ahwazi issue is pivotal to the future of Iran."