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Iran bans Lejnat Al-Wefaq

The Iranian regime has banned an Ahwazi Arab group campaigning for minority rights, claiming that it was behind the unrest in Al-Ahwaz (Khuzestan).

According to the official Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), the Ahwaz prosecutor's office released a statement todayn stating that the Lejnat Al Wefagh does not have permission to engage in political activities and has been declared illegal due to it's alleged opposition to the Islamic regime and encouraging communal violence. Anyone associated with the party is therefore guilty of mohareb (enmity with God), which carries the death penalty.

The Lejnat Al-Wefaq was set up in 1999 to support minority rights by constitutional means, using Article 15 of the Iranian Constitution to support its case that Ahwazi Arabs are legally entitled to equal cultural, linguistic, economic and political rights.

The group participated in elections and its general secretary, Jasem Shadidzadeh Al-Tamimi (pictured speaking in parliament), succeeded in winning a parliamentary seat in the Sixth Majlis (2000-04) as well as winning all but one seat on the Ahwaz municipal council in 2003 (click here for more details). However, in the last parliamentary elections in 2004, conservatives in the regime barred candidates nominated by Lajnat Al-Wefagh. The group was dismantled, closing down legal possibilities for demands for Ahwazi rights.

A ban on the party participating in elections led many Ahwazi Arabs to conclude that they could not expect the regime to respect their constitutional right to equality, leading to ethnic unrest. In April 2005, Ahwazi Arabs staged an uprising against the confiscation of their land and racial discrimination. The government of President Mohammed Khatami responded by brutally clamping down on the demonstrators, leading to 51 confirmed deaths (click here for more information). The use of state terror has continued with at least 25,000 arrests and hundreds of killings, executions and disappearances.

Lejnat Al-Wefaq's former Majlis member Jasem Shadidzadeh Al-Tamimi appealed to the government to accede to Ahwazi demands for cultural tolerance and an end to racial discrimination and land confiscation. In an open letter to President Khatami, he urged him to "do your utmost in lowering the 'wall of mistrust' between the proud Iranian ethnicities, so that the 'infected wounds' of the Arab people of Ahwaz may heal." (click here for further details) In response, the government detained Al-Tamimi, but released him without charge - although regime hardliners have called for his arrest and he has faced at least one assassination attempt. Dozens of Wefaq activists have been imprisoned and many have escaped into exile.

Nasser Bani Assad, spokesman for the British Ahwazi Friendship Society (BAFS), said: "Most Ahwazi Arabs will interpret the move to outlaw a party that stands for reconciliation with the Islamic Republic as a sign that the regime is keen to obstruct the equal rights they have been granted under the Iranian Constitution. Without any way of exercising their grievances through legal means and seemingly without any international condemnation of the regime's racism and ethnic cleansing measures, a growing number of Ahwazi Arabs will take increasingly extreme measures.

"Banning the Lejnat Al-Wefaq has closed any channel of communication between the Ahwazis and the regime and unfortunately many will see the only option is direct confrontation. The move will also have far reaching implications for the stability of Iran and the Middle East and oil markets.

"We can expect to see an increase in the sabotage of oil installations and a heightening in the cycle of violence and retribution in the Ahwaz region. Separatist sentiment is also likely to rise further as Ahwazis have little interest in being governed by an elite in Tehran that refuses to obey its own constitutional requirement to equal rights. The alienation of Ahwazi Arabs is only helping to polarise opinion, marginalising moderates like Shadidzadeh.

"Ahwazi democrats fear that the failure of the international community to take action to address the serious problems affecting Ahwazi Arabs is inflaming the situation further, leading to a growth in extremism and a wider security problems and a threat to global oil supplies - the Ahwaz region's oilfields contain 90 per cent of Iran's oil reserves."