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Iran: 1,442 Ahwazis arrested in one month

Colonel Matin-Rad, commander of Iran's State Security Forces in the border city of Abadan, has announced that 1,442 people were arrested in the Arab-majority province of Khuzestan in the space of just one month, according to the local Persian language Asr Karoun newspaper.

During the Iranian month of Shahrivar (23 August-23 September), which precedes the holy month of Ramadan, hundreds of mostly Ahwazi Arab people were rounded up and detained. During raids, the security forces seized 200 satellite dishes, 120 low-noise block (LNB) converters used to convert satellite signals, 167 relays, 100 receivers and 250 antennas. Meanwhile, three Ahwazi Arabs have been sentenced to death for allegedly stealing livestock and will face public execution after the end of Ramadan (click here for more information). Ahwazi activists believe the executions for crimes that do not normally carry the death penalty are an attempt to intimidate and punish the Arab population.

The regime claimed it was running a crack-down on drug trafficking and the smuggling of satellite equipment. However, the real reason for the arrests was the government's attempt to pre-empt Ahwazi Arab demonstrations that have marked Ramadan in the past. The confiscation of satellite television equipment is related to the government's attempts to stop the transmission of Ahwazi television programmes into Iran from abroad.

During last year's Ramadan, in November 2005, 81 Ahwazi Arabs were arrested while conducting a cultural play called Mahibis, a popular event performed during iftaar, following fasting in the month of Ramadan. The arrested included Zahra Nasser-Torfi, a feminist leader and director of the Ahwaz Al-Amjad cultural center, Arab-Iranian poet Hamid Haydari and the entire Mojadam family - Mohammad Mojadam, Hamid Mojadam, Mehdi Mojadam, Rasoul Mojadam, Khaled Bani-Saleh and Hassan Naisi.

These arrests were a contributing factor to protests held in Eid ul-Fitr, when more than 3,000 Ahwazis staged a peaceful march towards the centre of Ahwaz City. When it reached Ahwaz City's 5th Bridge, the demonstration was fired on by security forces armed with tear gas grenades. Two Arab youths were overcome by tear gas and drowned after they fell into the Karoon river. More than 200 demonstrators were arrested. The security forces were ordered to attack by General Amir Hayat Moghadam, appointed the Governor of Khuzestan by President Ahmadinejad.

The following day, the families of those arrested during the protests marched to the Governor's provincial headquarers wearing traditional Arabic clothing, dishdasha (ankle-length robe) and kafieh (scarf). The families demonstrated to demand the release of those arrested during Friday's demonstration and requested a meeting with the Governor. Using a loudhailer, Governor General Heyat Mojadam began calling them terrorists and Arab nomads, using foul language to insult the families' dignity, culture and identity. He warned the demonstrators that any Ahwazi Arab wearing traditional Arabic clothing would be arrested and ordered the security forces to disperse the crowd violently.

A youth arrested by the security forces gave an account to the British Ahwazi Friendship Society (BAFS) after his release. He said that those detained in prison included children and elderly men, adding that "we were kept in a room for two days without any food or water." Five days after his arrest, the young man was put on trial without legal representation. The judge acted as an interrogator, accusing the man of being a separatist and Wahabi extremist. He was then handcuffed and severely beaten by guards in order to force him to confess to the judge's allegations. He insisted that he had no contact with any organisation and was not an extremist, but had simply wanted to express his cultural identity. He was sentenced to three years imprisonment, but was soon released due to prison over-crowding.

The mass pre-Ramadan arrests are widely seen as collective punishment in an attempt to put down any peaceful resistance to the regime by Ahwazi Arabs.