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April Protests in Ahwaz Lead to Violent Crackdown by the Iranian Regime

Ahwazi Arabs have staged anti-government protests every April since the 2005, the year of the Ahwazi intifada that saw scores killed and hundreds arrested by the Iranian regime. Last April’s protests were the strongest since the intifada, encouraged by the April Spring revolutions that toppled governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and rocked the Iranian allied Assad regime in Syria.

This year, the government prepared well in advance, rounding up prominent members of the Ahwazi community, killing some under torture, broadcasting forced confessions on its international Press TV network and imposing martial law on Arab-majority districts. Around 100 were arrested in the run-up to the planned protests, according to the Ahwaz Centre for Human Rights, in a clear attempt to intimidate the Arab population.

The Iranian media was used to distribute pro-regime propaganda to provide clear justification of violent repression of Arabs in the weeks leading up to the April protests. In March 2012, Press TV used political prisoners who had been detained for months in secret prisons without charge or trial to construct an outlandish conspiracy theory. Ahwazi Arabs were portrayed as “simple people with simple minds” and therefore vulnerable to mysterious “mind termination” brain washing techniques that turned them into violent unthinking killers. The documentary narrator talked of the ideas instilled by Saddam being “grounded firmly into the Arab psyche”, implying that Arabs are an enemy within and inherently untrustworthy. Such racist assumptions have underpinned the regime’s policy of discrimination against Arab citizens and are used to justify violent repression. A previous documentary, broadcast by Press TV in December, aired forced confessions from three Ahwazi Arabs following months of incarceration in a secret Ministry of Intelligence detention centre. 

Some of those shown in the reports are among those now facing execution. In March, Amnesty International issued an appeal on behalf of five Ahwazi Arabs, including three brothers, their cousin and another man, who it believed were at imminent risk of execution after their death sentences were upheld by the Supreme Court. It warned that the death sentences were intended to deter the April demonstrations.

Meanwhile, at least two young Ahwazis - Nasser Derafshan Alboshokeh and Mohammad al-Ka’bi - were arrested by the security forces in January were killed under torture in a round-up of Arab youth, teachers and others. Nineteen year-old Alboshokeh had been rushed to hospital with a broken neck and torture wounds, but was confirmed dead on arrival. Al-Ka’bi’s death sparked mass protests in his home town Shush, but the authorities refused to return his body and instead buried it in order to prevent further disclosure of torture.

As security operations came into force and martial law was enforced in March and April, targeting the restive Hay al-Thawra district of Ahwaz City in particular, the regime imposed a media blackout. Deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch Joe Stork said: “Security operations in Khuzestan province since protests there last April have resulted in the largest number of deaths and injuries since the crackdown that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election. With the province under an information blackout and the history of secret convictions and executions, we have reason to be very worried about the people the authorities have been snatching up and carrying off there.”

Protests did take place in some districts such as Hay al-Thawra, Hamidiya, Kut-Abdullah and Zewiyah with protesters carrying banners and Ahwazi flags, but were quickly put down by the regime. In one disturbing development, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards besieged the Shohada High School in Amaniyah district after some Arab children hoisted the Ahwazi flag in the school. Children were detained and interrogated for days while their parents were denied access.

The consequences of the repression of protests will be felt for months with activists expecting more show trials and executions. These deaths will be in vain if the international community and the global media refuse to pay attention and continue to ignore the plight of the Ahwazi Arabs.